Written by: Amanda Daly
When you ask most people to describe the holiday season, they’ll tell you about the change in weather, the lights suddenly
glowing from houses and in public spaces, the ice rink that springs into existence at Horton Plaza, the red cups at Starbuck’s. They’ll tell you about a thousand things that set this time of year apart, a certain shift in energy as people direct their attention to friends, family, and traditions both religious and secular.
For me, the holidays are almost synonymous with The Nutcracker. For me, the holiday season means Tchaikovsky, the eye rolls when I hear the music for the Russian variation on almost every commercial, the smell of makeup and hairspray, the red seats at the Civic Theater. Definitely the red Starbuck’s cups. Caffeine and warmth are essential this time of year. From the moment I start doubling up on legwarmers, I know it’s only a matter of time before I literally have visions of sugarplums dancing around in my head.
I was four years old when I first performed in California Ballet Company’s Nutcracker as a Bon-Bon, and it was another four years until I graduated to the rank of Small Soldier #3 in the battle scene, which means I must have been pretty tiny as a child. From there I worked my way through most of the children’s roles; twin girl in the family scene, lollipop, reindeer, cavalry, courtier, rosebud. I bounced around from scene to scene as my height and abilities changed, and began understudying for the corps de ballet roles – Waltz of the Flowers and Snowflakes – when I was 15.
In fact, the first time I ever danced a corps spot full-out was during a snow scene rehearsal. One of the dancers was absent that day, and when the rehearsal director asked who her understudy was, I was pointed out. The next 8 minutes, dear reader, were eye-opening. Things started off fairly well; I knew the steps and thought I was doing a pretty good job of not embarrassing myself, of keeping my feet pointed and my legs turned out and such. I was very probably wrong about that, but at the time I was pretty confident I could keep up.
As we neared the four-minute mark, however, things began to change, very rapidly, for the worse. I was tired. The music felt like it was getting faster. It had to be getting faster. I started to feel the burning in my legs and chest and knew that I was in trouble. At least I was still getting to all the right places, at mostly the right time.
Six minutes in, I felt my feet start to cramp. I knew I was running, jumping mostly flat-footed, but I kept going. If I could just make it until the end, then at least I could say I had done it. Just about then, we were supposed to make a small circle around one of the tall dancers. More specifically, I was supposed to lead a small circle around one of the tall dancers. In the split second before I started running, I told myself I could do this. I was wrong, and was immediately passed by one, two, three company members. “Aren’t you supposed to be in front?” one of them asked as she sprinted by. I tried to look apologetically at her, hoping that I could somehow convey without words that yes, I knew I was supposed to be in front, but that my legs felt like sandbags and that I didn’t know how hard this was going to be, and didn’t she remember her first time dancing with the corps? I was going to tell her all this with my eyes, but as soon as I turned my head, she had already been replaced by another impossibly fast corps member giving me an equally puzzled look. I gave up on looking like a ballet dancer and flat out sprinted to the next place I had to be. The last two minutes I tried to pretend I wasn’t there.
When it was all over, I was red, sweaty, and trembling. I sat down right where I was and watched the older girls, daintily pink and glowing with a few well-placed beads of perspiration on their foreheads, listening to corrections and practicing the steps they needed to improve. I was awed at their ability to keep dancing when I had all I could do to breathe normally and reassure myself that my legs would indeed move again, one day. I learned two important things that day: never underestimate the work of the corps de ballets, and maybe cardio cross-training isn’t such a bad idea.
Today, with almost nine seasons of corps work under my belt, I’ve discovered that snow scene never really gets easier; you just get better at building your stamina, and hiding the trembling in your legs when it’s over. You still have to bow, after all.
The Nutcracker continues to be both a learning experience and a holiday tradition for me. There’s nothing quite like walking through downtown San Diego in December and entering the Civic theater through the stage door, where you are greeted by the giant pink Sugarplum throne still onstage from the night before, and the warm red seats of the house. Like most people, there are a thousand tiny things that I look forward to during Nutcracker season, regardless of how many years I have spent dancing this ballet; bundling up before class, picking out your favorite headpieces, arranging your costumes in your dressing room. Hearing the San Diego Symphony tuning their instruments right before the show is one of my favorite sounds in the world, and even though I’ve heard the first few bars of the overture hundreds of times, I can still feel the warmth and joy in them, and I love knowing that there are people in the audience experiencing that for the first time.
To see Amanda perform in this year’s The Nutcracker, go online to www.californiaballet.org/nutcracker!