Performing alongside professional ballet dancers in “The Nutcracker” with one of the most revered companies in the country is a dream come true for many young ballet students. Each year, over 100 children dance in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of this holiday favorite. It’s an exciting experience, but one that comes with a great deal of responsibility for both the young performers and their families: They must balance a busy rehearsal and performance schedule with schoolwork and their regular ballet training. The process begins in September and concludes with the final curtain call December 28.
In September, Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in Levels II through VI (typically ages 9 through 14) are invited to audition for “The Nutcracker.” Because it’s a major commitment for both the children and the parents, not every student auditions. Of those who do, not all make the cut — this year 210 students auditioned and 140 are in the performance. They perform in two casts of 70 each. In order to make the schedule less intense for the kids, two students are assigned to each role and they make up Cast A and Cast B.
Auditions are overseen by the company’s three ballet masters and the artistic team, led by Peter Boal, director of the PNB School and artistic director of PNB’s professional company. Students are selected based on a number of factors. “We look at musicality and how they do the steps,” says Ballet Master Otto Neubert. “It doesn’t have to be perfect because we understand they’ve never done some of these steps before, but we want to see how they pick up things and how they conduct themselves.”
Lauren Kirchner, PNB’s student cast and parent volunteer coordinator, explains that different roles require different levels of technique and acting skills. “Some parts have more dancing than others so you need technique, and some are more acting based,” she says. For example, the Candy Canes are more dance-heavy roles, while the party scene requires strong acting skills. The ballet masters and artistic team know exactly what they’re looking for in each role.
Getting ready for opening night
Rehearsals begin in the first week of October. On average, students rehearse two to three times per week, although Neubert says every year is a little different and some groups need more time in the studio. Until mid-November, the children practice separately from the company. The three ballet masters divide up the tasks: For example, one will rehearse the children in the battle scene while another handles the party scene.
Students are expected to be focused and on their best behavior. “I always say that if you treat kids like kids, you get a kid’s response, but if you treat them like young adults, you get an amazing response from them,” says Neubert.
Rehearsals are held in the afternoon and early evening so students don’t miss too much school and are home at a reasonable hour. But it’s a major commitment for these young dancers. “They still have regular school and regular ballet class, and then ‘Nutcracker’ rehearsals on top of that,” says Neubert. “So it’s a lot of work.”
Kirchner says the biggest challenge for the kids is that they have a lot to remember. “We’re asking them to take on a lot of responsibility,” she says. In addition to remembering their steps onstage, they’re responsible for taking care of their costumes in the theater, knowing what time to be in costume, and behaving in a professional manner both onstage and off.
“It’s some long days and late nights,” says Kirchner. “For the kids who are in Act II, they don’t get out of the theater until 9:45 at night, so they might be getting home at 10:30 and then they have to get up and go to school the next morning.” In order to keep late nights to a minimum, Cast A and Cast B alternate night performances. For example, Cast A will perform in the Friday evening show and then come back for the Saturday matinee, and Cast B will dance on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon.
Student performers arrive at the theater with their hair as it needs to be in the performance. The only exception is the girls who need to have their hair in curls — they arrive wearing rollers which are taken out once they’re in costume. All the makeup is provided by PNB, so parent volunteers and older students help the kids put on their stage makeup. “We do an assembly line of makeup and kids walk down the line to get their makeup done,” Kirchner explains.
There are typically 20 to 25 parent volunteers backstage at each performance, which is a tremendous help to Kirchner, who is in charge of keeping track of the dancers and making sure everyone is where they need to be.
“We have a great team of parent volunteers who help with every performance to keep everything moving and make sure that things are running smoothly,” she says. “So if I’m backstage with the party scene kids, I know that the parents are upstairs getting the battle scene students into their costumes.”
Part of taking care of the students involves easing their nerves. Kirchner assures them that it’s natural to be nervous and it even happens to company dancers before their first performance. And the older students backstage don’t just help with makeup — they reassure nervous young dancers.
One of Kirchner’s favorite parts of “The Nutcracker” is that there’s a real sense of community and they become like a close-knit family. “We’re with each other every day for November and December so we have to rely on each other to get through it,” she says. “And the kids are like the joy in the production. They’re so excited every single day.” By late December, the adults are exhausted — but Kirchner describes walking in and immediately feeling revitalized thanks to the energy and enthusiasm of the kids. “It’s so amazing to be there and watch these kids take on the responsibility of their roles,” she says. Although there are a lot of new faces every year, many of the cast members are students that she’s watched grow up through “The Nutcracker.” “They’ve been angels, then in the battle scene, and then played party girls,” she says. “The kids often grow up through different roles which is fun for them.”
The children’s joy and enthusiasm shines onstage and makes this holiday tradition even brighter.
Spend your holidays with Pacific Northwest Ballet! See “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score played live by the PNB Orchestra, the PNB dancers, Ian Falconer’s scenery and costumes, and Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall all dressed up for the holidays.