The joy ofthe Nutcracker lasts only so long."There are only so many things you can do for king and country," former principal dancer with the San Francisco Ballet Antonio Lopez says over fried eggs. "After all, it's football season for some of us."
I agree. My first brush with the Tchaikovsky extravaganza came innocently enough: I was 8, and my mother took me to the San Francisco Ballet on a Saturday afternoon. As a special treat, I was ushered backstage to watch the second act—where, in the striated light, the leaping men seemed to walk in the air, and the Sugar Plum ballerina, caked in sweat and makeup, blinked her hideously overdone eyes. I was hooked; expensive lessons followed. At first it was fun: party scenes, windup dolls, years as a plebian in the corps de ballet (the marathon Snowflake dance is a killer), solo roles and pas de deux. My best audience came when I danced the Arabian role in a gold chain bikini in a local production; the male half of my high school bought tickets.
Now, though, whenever I enter a store and hear the strains of TheNutcracker—usually the Waltz of the Flowers—floating out of the speakers, I shudder. When you mark every painful step of your adolescence with a particular role in TheNutcracker, you've had your fill for life by the time you reach adulthood. Unless you're a professional like Lopez. He's danced in more than 500 Nutcrackers, both as a principal and as a guest artist, and every December, when TheNutcracker plays on repeat all across the country, he and guest artists like him can count on the phenomenon for some much-needed cash and precious stage time. It's the "Brian Setzer Christmas" show of ballet: the average guest artist earns between $500 and $1,000 for the smaller school productions and $1,000 to $3,000 for the larger ones. International stars can command as much as $10,000 per performance.
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American Ballet Theater soloist Gennadi Saveliev, who dances the Nutcracker Prince role for the Festival Ballet, says nearly all 93 ABT dancers dance elsewhere during December. Like most companies, the dancers at ABT work 36 weeks a year and are paid only for those weeks. "We have a big break in winter, and this year we have seven weeks off in summer," he says. "Everybody tries to find dancing or other jobs."
"It's an excellent time to make a little extra money, try some things that you haven't done before onstage," says Amanda McKerrow, artistic adviser to Ballet Pacifica Academy and former principal ballerina at ABT. The extra money makes up for having to dance so far from home: for dressing in classrooms with a chalkboard rim as a barre; for dancing the pas de deux in New Mexico, where Lopez says the high altitude is like slamming into a wall; for getting snowed in; for the occasional train-wreck partner who "can't stay on point and bulges out of her tights." And ballet schools cherry-pick guest artists for their cachet and name recognition.
Long Beach Ballet's David Wilcox hired sterling Pacific Northwest ballerina Patricia Barker and Cuban-trained Karel Cruz to perform with their students this year. "They have to be perfect and famous. Why? Because it sells tickets," he says. Most schools aspire to match the success of Balanchine's Nutcracker in New York City. Balanchine launched his first Nutcracker in 1954 at the City Center to huge critical acclaim; today, its 45-performance, five-plus-week run at the New York State Theater funds most of the rest of the season.
And young dancers constantly materialize to dance it—even in the corps roles. Now over 40, Lopez says he's ready to watch the 49ers on Sunday and let some other young guys be the prince. McKerrow, who has danced "hundreds" of Sugar Plums, talks of swallowing her hate: "It's weird, there was a point in my career—you hear it in the mall, you hear it on TV. But the music is such unbelievable Tchaikovsky music," she says. "I kind of crested the wave, and then I started looking forward to it." Eventually, whether at the Barclay or Zody's, we must all make our peace with the sugarcoated classic. It even took Tchaikovsky a while. "And now it is finished, Casse-Noisette is all ugliness," he wrote savagely in 1892. Then, faced with failure, he relented: "Strange," the composer wrote, "that when I was composing the ballet, I kept thinking that it wasn't very good, but that I would show them [the Imperial Theaters] what I can do when I began the opera. And now it seems that the ballet is good and the opera not so good."