When the curtain goes up on George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, audiences will see the beloved holiday ballet much as its creator, New York City Ballet Co-Founder George Balanchine, envisioned it. The Christmas tree will soar to an eye-popping height of 41 feet. Candy Canes, Marzipan, and Hot
Chocolate will spring to life to Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky’s lilting score. And young children in the cast will frolic at a 19th-century house party, glide across the stage as tiny angels, and scamper out from under Mother Ginger’s capacious skirt as high-spirited Polichinelles.
But this year, of the 126 children who comprise the ballet’s two alternating casts, just 18 have performed in The Nutcracker in previous years. Among the 108 newcomers are the ballet’s three main characters, the Prince, Marie, and Fritz. Contrast that with The Nutcracker’s pre-pandemic production in 2019, in which 72 young dancers were Nutcracker veterans, including all of the children in leading roles.
The abundance of newcomers is, of course, due to the pandemic. Nutcracker performances were canceled completely in 2020, and in 2021, children’s roles were limited to students aged 12 and up, the cutoff vaccination age for children at the time. “It was a gift of an extra year for the 12-year-olds, but
there’s a huge group of younger dancers who missed two years of opportunity to perform in The Nutcracker,” says Children’s Repertory Director Dena Abergel who, together with Associate Children’s Repertory Director Arch Higgins, prepares the children, all of them students at the School of American
Ballet, for their Nutcracker roles.
The production is designed for children to gain age-appropriate performance experience as they grow up in it. The youngest girls, aged 8 to 9, typically start as Angels, learning stage directions, rehearsal deportment, and how to count to music. Between ages 9 and 10, they progress to the Party Scene,
adding pantomime and social dancing to their skill set. By the time they’re cast as Polichinelles and Candy Canes, aged 11 to 12, they’re at home on the big stage and ready for more challenging choreography.
Making up for two years of lost experience doesn’t happen in an instant, as Abergel quickly discovered. It took twice as many rehearsals this year to teach the Grandfather’s Dance, the Party Scene’s intricate finale.
But after a decade as Children’s Repertory Director and 19 years dancing in The Nutcracker with the Company, Abergel knows every facet of the ballet, as well as how to get the most out of young dancers who are balancing the demands of ballet with full-time academic school. She teaches the more formidable choreography, like the Grandfather’s Dance, first, so the children have weeks to master it. She even harnesses technology, recording herself counting steps to the music so students can listen to her when they practice at home.
“I’ve listened to the Grandfather’s Dance every single day because I need to get this down,” says Judah Horenfeldt, an 11-year-old fifth grader from Tenafly, New Jersey, who is dancing in the Party Scene in his first Nutcracker. “I also have a notebook where I write everything down so I can practice when I get home. I’m so excited to be doing this!”
He’s not the only one. Tess Vogel, an 11-year-old sixth grader from Brooklyn, is thrilled to be a Polichinelle, particularly after sitting out the past two seasons following her Nutcracker debut as an Angel when she was 8. “When I was an Angel, we were always looking up to the Polichinelles. Now that I’m a Polichinelle, it feels great when the younger kids ask me what it’s like,” she says.
One of this year’s most daunting tasks for Abergel and Higgins was casting the leading roles of Marie, The Prince, and Fritz, parts normally danced by Nutcracker veterans. “Usually when The Nutcracker is over, there’s someone who stood out in the Party Scene who I’ll continue to watch, but that couldn’t
happen in the last two years,” Abergel says. For the role of Marie, she assembled a large group of students who met the height and age requirements, and made up an impromptu Nutcracker-style acting scene for them to perform as part of the audition process. “They had to be able to catch the choreography so I knew they could learn, display emotion, and show me a character,” she says. “It was definitely a very different process for us, but it worked.”
It certainly worked for 10-year-old Zofia Mendez, a fifth grader from the Bronx—and an SAB student since she was 6—whose first role ever in The Nutcracker will be Marie. The tryout was nerve wracking, Mendez says. “I was shaking, but when I really focused, I actually got the instructions and corrections and was able to do it. Dancing in The Nutcracker was one of my dreams.”
As rehearsals wind down, Abergel looks forward to the magic moment when everything comes together. “It always does,” she says. “But this will be an extraordinary year—for the audience, for the parents, and for the kids themselves most of all.”