For dancers at Pacific Northwest Ballet, 2020 was something unthinkable: a year without a “Nutcracker.” Fortunately, that’s not the case this year. In honor of the holiday classic returning to PNB’s stage this month, we gathered four of the company’s principal dancers — collectively representing many hundreds of “Nutcracker” performances — around a table, to reminisce about a ballet they know so very well. Here are lightly edited excerpts from that conversation.
My first “Nut”
James Yoichi Moore (18 years at PNB): I started out in San Francisco Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” I was the sailor boy in the party scene, the littlest boy. Maybe 11, something like that? It’s kind of a fun role in that production. Nothing special, just a little boy in a sailor outfit.
Angelica Generosa (11 years at PNB): I didn’t have a “Nutcracker” until I auditioned for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. That was my first big thing: I was Clara for the Rockettes. It sounds so funny to say! It was a shock to the system, dancing with bears and Rockettes, a different “Nutcracker” for sure. I was 13.
Noelani Pantastico (18 years at PNB): My first was a really small ballet school. I auditioned, it was a cattle call for a bunch of young kids. I got the role of Clara, and that’s kind of how I got sucked in. That was at Ballet New England. I was 9, 10 years old.
Lesley Rausch (23 years at PNB): When I was 13 I went to Columbus Youth Ballet [in Ohio] and started training there. They did a “Nutcracker,” and that would have been my first year learning it. I remember we all had multiple parts, changing costumes all the time, doing all the things. I think shortly thereafter I started doing Sugar Plum, which felt so special. I just remember my whole family coming to see me, and being the one standing in the center of the stage … there was something about it that just felt so rewarding. Like Noe said, it draws you into this world of what might be possible, if you pursue this as a career.
Watching from the wings
Moore: For students, “Nutcracker” is your introduction to live performance: being on stage, seeing your heroes in the company. Maybe that’s why it’s so special for dancers, because we can see ourselves in those little kids backstage. I remember when I was a kid, talking to company members. When you’re Prince and Clara in a lot of productions, you’re right onstage, best seat in the house to see all your heroes dance. It’s pretty magical so then you start dreaming: When I get older, I’m going to do that, too.
Rausch: I started in the school here when I was 17, and I watched everybody. I was in “Snow,” I was in “Flowers,” in party scene, but I would watch everything. You can learn so much. Now I watch the kids [backstage] and they know the choreography for every part. I’ve seen these kids do full “Arabian” and it’s amazing.
Generosa: When I was an apprentice here, I did my first “Nutcracker.” We did “Snow” and would watch the principals do their pas de deux beforehand. I felt just like the little Clara in the wings. I was like, oh my gosh, this is so cool to watch them.
Pantastico: I feel like I still do that. From a different viewpoint — you see the Angels and you understand what they’re experiencing and how special it is. Then it becomes special for you again.
Rausch: Clara in Kent Stowell’s “Nutcracker.” His ability to create magic in a lyrical pas de deux, not once but twice — it feels magical to dance. I was really fortunate that it was one of the first opportunities that I got to dance a principal role, so I really hold it dear. The “Snow” music and the Sugar Plum music are some of the most beautiful that Tchaikovsky ever wrote, and you’re out there, getting to literally be the music in those moments.
Moore: I have to go back to Fritz, as a kid — that was my favorite, the first time I think I tasted abandon onstage. Where you had a bit of freedom, and you could really perform.
Pantastico: When I was younger I really loved Dewdrop, I would just attack it and be fearless, when I was like 14 or 15. Now, I really enjoy doing Plum. I’ve grown with it; I started doing this specific [Balanchine] version at I think 15. I’ve gotten to lean into it more and more as I’ve gotten older. I can keep growing, finding different things to do with it every year.
Generosa: I love Dewdrop. It feels fun, until the last entrance. I feel free in it.
A “Nut”-less holiday in 2020
Pantastico: It was just a weird year. I almost didn’t want to acknowledge it, because I would just miss it more.
Generosa: I went home for the holidays, it was weird during that time — to see people, have a tree, opening presents with family. I’m usually off getting ready to go onstage the next day. That was really strange to have.
Rausch: Last year I made a Thanksgiving dinner and cooked a Christmas dinner and I can’t imagine having the energy to do that during a normal holiday season for us. So as special as “Nutcracker” is, you do miss out on many holiday traditions that other people are experiencing, and I think as much as many of us will miss the dancing part when we are no longer dancing, I think we may enjoy other holiday traditions.
Returning to “The Nutcracker”
Generosa: The music is so familiar — everywhere you go, that’s how the holiday season starts. It’s kind of comforting, to see where we are with dance. It feels so familiar to come back to something that we all know. It feels really good to come back to that, for the holidays.
Rausch: It’s a hard part of the season sometimes for us, but when we get tired, you try to have a moment to appreciate that so many people come [to “Nutcracker”]. It may be the first time they’ve ever been to the ballet, maybe the only time they’ve come in their entire lives, and maybe it’s the time that they fall in love with ballet. So bringing your best, every time that you’re out there, is truly important.
[As dancers] it’s like a time marker. Every year, maybe it feels easier, or maybe you feel more freedom, or maybe by the end of the run you’ve done so many performances you don’t think about the steps at all. Now I have the ability to express something different artistically, or make different choices. For dancers I think that can be a really good thing.
Pantastico: I know that there’s a stigma with “Nutcracker” for dancers, because we do it every year, we do so many shows. But I think it’s pretty special. I still really like doing it. It brings in the season, it’s special for the kids, therefore it’s special for us. I love it.