Arts preview: BalletMet’s “The Nutcracker” is a holiday tradition even the dancers look forward to

By Columbus Alive
From the December 12, 2013 edition

BalletMet’s production of “The Nutcracker” is one of the holiday season’s most established traditions. The costumes are elegantly magnificent. The sets are mammoth and eye-popping. The Tchaikovsky score is timeless, evoking memories of holidays past. The choreography and its execution are incomparably accomplished, requiring never-ending rehearsal and dedication.

One reason the ballet (and its choreography) is so complex, yet performed so beautifully and with such precession, is because every dancer has performed “The Nutcracker” every year, often for years on end. So why, then, do the dancers get excited — every year — about the weeks-long preparation and grueling performing schedule for a ballet they’ve been doing for most of their careers, if not their lives?

Much of it has to do with the tradition accompanying “The Nutcracker,” but there are some lesser-known aspects, both personal and professional, that make the classic something to look forward to every year.

For Olivia Clark, a senior member with 15 years of experience at BalletMet, “The Nutcracker” represents that decisive moment. Clark first saw “The Nutcracker” when she was four-years-old and it changed her life.

“I started dancing because my parents took me to see ‘The Nutcracker,’ and I fell in love with it and begged them for classes,” Clark said.

To “shut her up,” Clark’s parents signed her up for classes in her hometown of Bellville, Ohio with a woman who taught ballet in her basement. After a few years, Clark knew she wanted to get serious and knew there was only one place to be.

“My mom would bring me every day — an hour from Bellville — to BalletMet to take classes here,” Clark said. “This was the serious school in the state. I knew if I wanted to do it, I had to be here.”

Clark’s first performance with BalletMet came when she was 12, in — you guessed it — “The Nutcracker.” The only year Clark didn’t perform in “The Nutcracker” was when she was pregnant with her daughter, who’s now six-years-old and gives her a whole new reason to love the holiday ballet.

“There’s part of you as a dancer that hears the music for the first time that season and you go, ‘ugh,’ but there’s also that part of you that knows Christmas is still so magical,” Clark said. “Especially having a child to see it through her eyes now; she just loves the story and the magic of it. I get choked up.”

Like Clark, Emily Gotschall has been performing in BalletMet’s “The Nutcracker” since she was a child, playing young Clara at 10-years-old. Gotschall is a Columbus native who trained at the BalletMet Dance Academy and enjoys the flexibility available in “The Nutcracker.”

Beginning Thursday and running to Christmas Eve, “The Nutcracker” has more performances, frequently with two a day, than any other ballet presented by the company. This means dancers perform a handful of different roles throughout the production’s run.

It’s partly because the dancers need a physical break from the demands of principle roles. Gotschall will dance two major roles, Grown-Up Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy, but also take on secondary ones (Snowflake, Flower). Clark will also do a number of performances as Clara, while also playing the Spanish Doll, Page Leader and other roles.

“We do something different every night and that keeps it interesting,” Gotschall said. “This year we have four with seven different rotations of [the Sugar Plum Fairy] role.”

Clark reiterated Gotschall’s statements about playing different roles, especially given the sheer number of performances. “If you were doing the same thing every show, it would get quite monotonous. It’s nice to have something you’re a little nervous for and can get excited for.”

The other aspect of “The Nutcracker” extended schedule that “excites” dancers is the opportunity it offers. Veterans like Clark and Gotschall are eager to see what the other dancers do with their roles, especially young dancers getting a shot.

“[It’s] a really good opportunity to give people the chance to try a featured role because there are so many featured roles,” Gotschall said.

“Almost everybody has four or five different roles … and it keeps the shows fresh because we’re watching what our fellow dancers are doing,” Clark said.

The long-run of “The Nutcracker” is infamous among dancers, resulting in lighthearted jokes and mild complaining, but Gotschall actually loves spending weeks inside the historic Ohio Theatre where it will be performed. Still, it’s that new experience that makes all the difference.

“I love that we reach so many people with ‘The Nutcracker.’ For a lot of children it’s their first experience with dance as an art form. That’s one of the most inspiring things,” Gotschall said.

Photos by Meghan Ralston and Will Shilling