Dancers reveal how they balance shows, rehearsals, holidays and everyday life during ‘Nutcracker’ season.

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Across the United States each fall, ballet dancers prepare for their annual appearances in “The Nutcracker.” A time-tested holiday tradition, this ballet supports everything else a ballet company will produce for the rest of the year. Over a million Americans will get a chance to enjoy professional dance while helping those nonprofit companies flourish, and “The Nutcracker” is typically a balletgoer’s first ballet experience.

On the other side of the curtain, however, a full cast of professional dancers and dancers-in-training are experiencing what could be their most strenuous performance schedule of the year.

Madison Rayn Abeo as a Snowflake. (Angela Sterling)
Madison Rayn Abeo as a Snowflake. (Angela Sterling)

“We pretty much live at McCaw Hall for the run of ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” says Pacific Northwest Ballet corps de ballet dancer Madison Rayn Abeo. PNB presents 35-40 performances of “The Nutcracker” annually, from matinees and evening shows to dress-rehearsal special events.

How many pointe shoes does it take to perform 40 “Nutcrackers”? At least 40, for most dancers. One pair per show is the minimum, with some dancers using up to three.

“I sew a lot more pointe shoes [during “Nutcracker” season] because my shoes die much faster,” says Abeo. And in the midst of a rigorous performance schedule, good pointe shoes help keep dancers’ legs and feet healthy.

“I also stock up on Epsom salts, and I use a heating pad as well as compression socks religiously during my down time,” says Abeo.

Injury prevention is vital. After their final “Nutcracker” performance December 28, dancers have only one week off before returning to the studios for more rehearsals; after “The Nutcracker,” PNB presents “The Sleeping Beauty” during the first two weekends of February.

Even in early December, those rehearsals are already beginning.

“When we’re in the depths of ‘Nutcracker’ performance, we are often preparing for pieces we are going to perform later in the season,” says Cecilia Iliesiu, another corps de ballet dancer at PNB. “We’ll perform in ‘The Nutcracker,’ and then head next door to the Phelps Center and learn and rehearse brand-new choreography.”

“Nutcracker” rehearsals can last six hours per day for several weeks. Though PNB has already performed this version of “The Nutcracker” for three previous seasons, new dancers need plenty of rehearsal time to make everything perfect for brand-new audience members.

And some roles can be tricky: You have to learn your own part while mastering the scene as a whole.

“[Waltz of the] Flowers takes the most rehearsal time,” since it’s a very long scene, says Abeo, who performs as a Flower and Demi-Flower (a coryphée role, leading the corps de ballet). “We don’t leave the stage the entire time, which makes it a lot more work to perfect the spacing all together as a corps de ballet.”

“There are also the roles in which our Professional Division students get their first opportunities to dance on the McCaw stage,” says Iliesiu, referring to PNB School’s program for students transitioning to the professional dance world, “so we need extra rehearsal to make sure they are comfortable in their spots next to Company dancers.”

Cecilia Iliesiu as a Demi-Flower. (Angela Sterling)
Cecilia Iliesiu as a Demi-Flower. (Angela Sterling)

Iliesiu dances eight roles this season, including leading roles like Dewdrop and Arabian. “I typically perform in every show,” she says. “My body feels like a noodle during the run, so I can usually only manage to sit on the couch and eat!”

But each role is danced to perfection every night. “We need to make sure every step is musical, clean and done to the best of our ability,” says Abeo.

Abeo hopes to eventually dance the coveted lead role of Sugar Plum Fairy. “This season I’ve actually been working on learning the choreography with fellow corps member Christian Poppe, in hopes that we can do it in the future,” she says. “It’s been so inspiring to work on and a great challenge.”

“I try to create a story and purpose behind each movement,” says Iliesiu. “As a child in ‘The Nutcracker,’ I looked up to all the Company dancers who made these roles look flawless and I want to be that example for the children growing up in PNB School.”

Despite their pursuit for perfection, dancers are regular people, too – and they celebrate holidays during “Nutcracker” season.

“The Company becomes a very closely-knit family during ‘Nutcracker’ because we spend so much time together,” says Iliesiu. “Dancers have a wonderful tradition of having ‘friendsgiving’ for Thanksgiving and celebrating our days off by relaxing and eating.”

Those lucky enough to have family nearby, like Abeo, invite them to see their “Nutcracker” performances – and share the holidays with Seattle transplants.

“Since my parents live nearby, every year we have a big dinner for all the dancers who don’t have somewhere to spend the holiday,” says Abeo.

Spend your holidays with PNB! See “The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score played live by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, the brilliant dancing of PNB dancers, Ian Falconer’s scenery and costumes, and Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall all dressed up for the holidays.