Shift switch: A role in "The Nutcracker," part one
Despite the fact I have never taken a ballet class in my life, I could not resist the opportunity to play an extra in the Milwaukee Ballet's "The Nutcracker," especially once marketing director Velia Alvarez assured me neither tutus nor dance skills were required.
"All you have to do is stand there and smile and 'fake chat' with other party guests," said Alvarez, who is the wife of OnMilwaukee.com publisher Andy Tarnoff.
"I can do that!" I thought.
Consequently, last Friday I found myself standing inside Studio A at the Milwaukee Ballet, 504 W. National Ave., preparing for my first rehearsal as a "Nutcracker" walk-on.
I will appear in the 1:30 p.m. matinee show on Sunday, Dec. 22. As the one in the back, the only one not dancing, I should be easy to spot.
The Milwaukee Ballet's version of "The Nutcracker" runs Dec. 14-27 and has four rotating casts. This means the dancers play different roles from performance to performance.
"It's very possible if you came to two shows during the same season you'd have a different experience because it changes a little every time," says marketing associate Leslie Rivers.
According to Rivers, Milwaukee Ballet director Michael Pink's version varies from traditional adaptations of the famous ballet.
For example, Pink added a couple of roles. In his version, the main characters, Fritz and Clara, have an older sister, Marie, and the mysterious magic man character, Drosselmeyer, has a nephew. He also wove a love story into the ballet.
"Michael is an innovator and a storyteller. His version is very warm and inviting. It's engaging for the whole family," says Rivers.
The Milwaukee Ballet's version also features a live orchestra – accompanied by the Milwaukee Children's Choir – which is cost prohibitive for most dance companies these days.
There are about 150 children in "The Nutcracker," all of whom take classes at the ballet school. Some of the adult dancers in the show started out as children in the show years ago.
I took my child to a performance about five years ago, when he was 6, and although he was mesmerized while watching, he later told me he wished there was "more talking." Sorry, kid.
The Milwaukee Ballet started performing "The Nutcracker" in 1970 when the company was born and has performed it every year since. While the ballet is performed year-round in Europe, performances are largely scheduled near Christmas in the United States.
During the rehearsal, despite the kindness of the other dancers – they made eye contact with me and some smiled – I felt a bit lunky and out of place. Actually, I felt like how I sometimes feel at real-life parties – unsure of who to talk to and out of my element.
But mostly, I found the rehearsal fascinating, particularly seeing the famous props, like the grandfather clock and the snow queen book, up close.
Janel Meindersee, a dancer in her third season with the Milwaukee Ballet who is originally from Vancouver, Wash., was assigned to be my "handler." This meant I was to basically follow her around on stage and mimic her expressions.
I appear in the opening scene – which is the party scene – and basically I marvel at children and magic tricks. I'm no natural but I was able to, for the most part, stay in the moment and muster a look of somewhat believable enchantment.
Later, Alvarez suggested I imagine myself as a character with a purpose at the party. We decided my character was Meindersee's sister with two left feet and a drinking problem. Kidding. We just decided on sister and, indeed, this method helped me feel like I had more purpose on stage.
At one point while I was on stage, Meindersee whispered to me she had to dance, and she went to the middle of the stage with the rest of the dancers, leaving me and one cast member on the outskirts.
I decided to try to "fake chat" with the only other non-dancer on stage, but when I tried she just looked straight ahead. I thought maybe she was annoyed by me, but after the scene, she touched my arm and said, nicely, that she was playing the maid and the maid doesn't talk to party guests. Of course!
It turns out, I actually do have to "dance" a little when exiting the stage – basically a series of simple steps while linking arms with a cast member. I am currently practicing this at home and I feel like I'm in my seventh grade musical.
Prior to the rehearsal, Rivers gave me a rundown of the ballet while a dozen or so dancers around us stretched, twirled and taped their toes. I tried not to stare, but I couldn't help myself. Their bodies were so lean and strong and I liked noting how many of them wore mukluks instead of leg warmers.
I also noted there were, as expected, so many hair buns.
Studio A is a beautiful space. It features mirrors and bars and a floor with springs beneath the surface. "It's easier on the dancers' joints this way," says Rivers.
Rivers went on to tell me that the Milwaukee Ballet is an international company featuring 24 professional dancers – about half men and half women from all over the world — and 20 trainees.
The dancers range in age from 20 to their mid-30s. They have a very rigorous lifestyle – one that's particularly amazing to comprehend for sedentary writer types who spend much of their life shackled to a laptop.
The dancers' work day runs from 9:30 to about 6:15 p.m. during which they spend much of their time dancing. Often, they go to the gym after work for strength training.
"It's not an easy life. No one accidentally becomes a ballet dancer," says Rivers. "But the great thing about this group, unlike what you sometimes see in the movies, is that they are very supportive and encouraging of one another."
Part two of this commentary will post after the performance. Stay tuned. And no heckling.
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