It’s 45 minutes before showtime and the melodies of ABBA filter through the dressing rooms adjacent to New Space beneath Memorial Hall. Listening to the movie soundtrack from Mamma Mia! may seem an odd prelude to Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, but to the dancers in the St. Paul’s School Ballet Company (SPSBC) it’s a cherished pre-performance routine. Opening night has been months in the making for the company's 17 dancers.
For the past 40 years, the SPSBC has brought the Land of Sweets to life for two evenings and one afternoon each December. Before Mother Nature produces her first snowflakes, the company is hard at work, learning the choreography to the winter-time classic. Rehearsals begin in late September, as Director of Dance Kate Lydon and Assistant Director of Dance Courtney Peix-Barros guide the dancers through the process of inhabiting the steps of magical characters such as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Cavalier, Snow Queen, and Dew Drop. Bringing to life a renowned ballet that is performed by professional companies around the world is part of what makes this production so unique for its cast.
“It’s even more than a rite of passage,” explains Zoë Dienes ’20 of the ballet-world staple. “It's where people have their origin, from being an angel to being Clara to being a party girl or a soldier.” Dienes is now in her fifth Nutcracker, and her fourth with the SPSBC. Through the years she has danced in the corps de ballet for both Land of Snow and Waltz of Flowers, and she’s tackled signature roles such as Snow Princess, Chinese Tea, Dew Drop, and Sugar Plum Fairy.
Corps de ballet work presents multiple challenges. Within Snow, dancers must master fast footwork as they mimic the flurry of snowflakes. In both Snow and Flowers, nearly a dozen dancers perform the choreography while moving together in formation.
Dienes, who danced Dew Drop and Sugar Plum on different nights this season, admits her favorite part is dancing with the corps. “That corps work is so much harder than any solo could ever be,” confesses Dienes. “In Flowers, there are so many lines and so many formations that you need to keep very straight and precise. So, there's a lot of eye contact and communication among the dancers on stage. Whenever I have those moments where I'm able to look across and see one of my best friends, and we get to smile at each other and share that moment is cool.”
The company meets six days a week throughout the school year, with practices during the athletics block in the afternoon and a technical class during the academic day. The effort results in performances that appear effortless.
"There is so much individuality and so much talent, and everybody has special and unique qualities that make them who they are on stage," says Lydon, who herself danced with the San Francisco Ballet and American Ballet Theatre. "The audience should see all of that. Because they work so hard on technique, they look unified, and within that, they are their own dancer.”
Aside from being a charming holiday tale, The Nutcracker marks milestones in young dancers’ careers. “I like the challenge of getting a harder role than the previous year and then trying to live up to it or perform it the best that I can,” explains company member Andrew Fleischner ’22. Fleischner began performing in The Nutcracker with the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in his home state of Pennsylvania. He began as a toy soldier and later graduated to the role of Fritz, Clara's bratty brother in the party scene from Act I. In this year's SPSBC production, which focuses on Act II, Fleischner embraced more acrobatic roles in the energetic Candy Cane and Russian dances.
While the music and the story of The Nutcracker are constants from year to year, no two productions are the same, says Chloe Abbruzzese ’22. “The movement has to be perfected, but I can do it so differently from someone else,” explains Abbruzzese, who danced as lead angel this year marking her second SPS Nutcracker, and 12th of her career. “I can portray the same message, the same story as the girl next to me, be the same role as her, but it's my interpretation of that, and no one else can dance like me.”
When the curtain rises, and the dancers take the stage, the pure joy of the art comes through. "I love performing," says Dienes. "I disappear, and I become nothing but the movement. It’s so meditative. At that moment, I'm not Zoë Dienes who has a math test. I’m just performing. I am the movement. When I dance, I feel a sense of pride."