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The Tiny Dancers Who Make “The Nutcracker” Shine

If last year’s production proved anything, it’s that size and spirit matter. The smaller the children, the more the scene seems enormous, lending the tale an enchantment. Yes, there are memorable adult characters: the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Dewdrop, the Ginger Mother and the Mouse King. But children are the heart of ballet, the glue – what guides us on this path to feel feelings.

This year, rejoice! The little bodies are back – although due to the pandemic they have little experience. Of the 126 in production (there are two actors), 108 are new to the series.

Dena Abergel, City Ballet’s director of children’s repertoire, considers “The Nutcracker,” which opens Friday at Lincoln Center, as Balanchine’s training ground: it teaches children at the City Ballet-affiliated school how to become performers.

Typically, they start out as angels, progressing to more technically advanced parts — like Candy Canes and Polichinelles — until they get old (or outgrow the costumes). Along the way, they learn choreography and professionalism.

But this year, with so many zero starts, it’s different. “None of the principal dancers and most of the period dancers were ever in ‘The Nutcracker,'” Abergel said. “I’ve never had a Marie who doesn’t even know what the party scene is, nor a Prince who doesn’t know the ballet sequence. It’s just never happened before.

As expected, this young generation is over the moon. Eleanor Murphy, 9, who alternates the role of the rabbit with Taiga Emmer, 8, first saw the City Ballet production when she was 3 years old. “After the show, I was screaming because I didn’t want to go home,” she said. . “I took a picture with one of the snowflakes, which was cool. I always wanted to be in ‘The Nutcracker,’ and now I’m in ‘Nutcracker.'”

She wrapped her arms around herself and giggled. (It’s that kind of year. Kindness is next level.)

Abergel is thrilled to see the new approach to these children; since they haven’t grown up in production, they’ll be less likely to imitate what they’ve seen other kids do. “They really learn it from us,” she said. “As for my role, it’s really difficult because they don’t know anything about rehearsals. They know nothing about the scene. They don’t know how to play. So it’s not just about teaching the angels.

The role of the angel teaches young dancers diagonals – how to cross the stage and make a circle. He teaches them to count in music. Now that means she’s giving students new to “The Nutcracker,” Abergel said, “a crash course in everything about performing, rehearsing, how to learn choreography, memorizing, and assembling from one repetition to the next.”

It also made the casting unusual this year, especially with regard to the choice of Marie, the young heroine of the ballet. Abergel and Arch Higgins, the associate director of children’s repertoire at City Ballet, could not base their decisions on size and past experience. And they had little awareness of the dramatic ability of children, which is essential for Marie, who helps carry the ballet.

Abergel composed sequences of actors based on the choreography, “just to see who could convey an emotion, who could tell a story,” she said. “It was very clear who stood out: Arch and I looked at each other and were like, ‘OK, here we go. “”

Who got the role? Two good friends, both 10 years old, with radically different personalities: the lively and dramatic Zofia Mendez and the more serene and dreamy Caroline O’Hagan. (Abergel loves it when that happens: it shows the world, she says, that you don’t have to be a specific guy to be right for the role.) Zofia was told she would play Marie from her mother. “My mother asked, ‘Zofia, who is Marie?’ because she was not very familiar. I started crying and my mom was so confused.

“‘This role is amazing,'” Zofia told her mother. “So she started crying with me.”

O’Hagan first saw “The Nutcracker” when he was two and a half. “I always came home and pretended to be Mary,” she said. “I never let my mother put away the ‘Nutcracker’ she bought me.”

Carrying the ballet on their little shoulders is one thing. Marie’s silk taffeta dress for the festive scene in Act I poses another, less mentioned challenge: its heaviness and stiffness. “When I go to sleep,” Zofia said, “I dream of myself in the heaviest dress, falling in the middle of the stage. Oh my goodness.”

Abergel is nervous about other things: The coronavirus is still circulating, which means the kids could be pulled from the show at any time. “Let’s say it was Marie,” she said. “We would call the Marie of last year. But this Marie from last year is my size, so that’s not an option anymore.

This height: just under 5 feet 7 inches. “That’s why I tell myself, let them be as prepared as possible every day,” Abergel said. “Because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”


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