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Behind-the-scenes at The Nutcracker

Tanya Dobler’s everything you imagine a ballet dancer should be: not-too-tall and light of foot, expressive eyes, slim with perfect posture. When she walks in the room to meet me for our interview, she’s dressed comfortably in track pants, a tank top and Adidas flip flops. She has a sweater tied around her waist, and her long hair is, of course, tied back. We’re here to talk about The Nutcracker, and as a 13-year principal dancer for the Alberta Ballet, she’s practically an expert. Dobler has played nearly every role from “party guest” to “flower” as a child, to Arabian dancer, Sugar Plum Fairy, and (her favourite) the Snow Queen as a professional. “It’s the beautiful music,” she says of her love for the principal adult role, adding, “plus, I love dancing pas de deux,” (a dance routine with a male partner).

Behind the whimsical costumes and satin slippers, however, this 34-year-old Nutcracker ballerina confesses that preparing for the show, even when you’ve been in it for nearly three decades, is a lot of hard work. Dobler looks down at her feet, and removes her sandals, showing me crooked toes, and hard callouses and scabs. She trains and rehearses eight hours a day, at least five times a week. For Dobler, ballet isn’t just a hobby, it’s a full-time job. When asked how she feels about being a Nutcracker veteran, her reaction is surprising. “Whenever you do something repeatedly you need to dig a little deeper to renew the experience,” she says, speaking frankly about cringing at times when she first hears the opening notes of the show.

“But,” she says, “there’s a lot of kids on the set, and when I see how excited they are and the look in their eyes, I remember how I first felt—and that’s inspiring.”

The Nutcracker is often associated with childhood memories: maybe you loved getting dressed up, perhaps you were forced to go see it with your Mom, or you harboured a secret wish to be a ballerina, or were in love with the music and beautiful costumes. Whatever memories you may have, the reason that The Nutcracker continues to be so appealing is that once the curtain goes up and the music begins, its magic is contagious—you get taken away into a fantasy world and into a story that you believe in.

The ballet is based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice.” French author Alexander Dumas later revised Hoffman’s tale, and it is from this version that in 1892, “the father of classical ballet,” Marius Petipa, took Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s immortal score and choreographed a masterpiece. The Nutcracker has been a hit in North American theatres since it was first performed in San Francisco in 1944, and has become as much a part of the holiday season as eggnog and decorating the tree. It’s a tradition that Alberta Ballet has taken up since 1980, and this year’s show runs for 16 days and tours to five cities across western Canada and the States. Artistic director Jean Grand-Maître says the company takes the show very seriously.

“A lot of the audience is made up of kids who are coming to the ballet for the first time, and it’s our chance to develop future dancers,” he says. He goes deeper, describing The Nutcracker as a chance for audience members to forget about their everyday realities. “When the orchestra plays well, the dancers relax, and it’s this moment of suspended truth. It’s magical,” he says. “Everything is working in tune with the other and there’s a flow. It reminds us of what man does at its best.” Now animated, Grand-Maître uses wide hand gestures as he talks about some of the themes of the show, emphasizing that perhaps the most important message is that of courage.

In the first act, a young girl, Clara, has been given the Nutcracker as a present and is swept into a fantasy world where the toy comes to life. Together, they soon face the evil Rat King and his entourage, and are forced to fight against them. After a series of battles, the Rat King remains defiant, and it falls upon the till-then passive Clara to step in and help defeat him.

“She’s a hero,” Grand-Maître declares. “She’s timid and scared at first and then we watch her transform into someone with integrity. It’s important that we have examples of heroes, especially during this time of the world.” Though often only 12-years-old, the girl who plays Clara must grasp this concept and be able to bear the weight of her responsibility, says Ballet Master Edmund Stripe. Stripe is in charge of auditioning for the entire cast. “She needs to be mature, be able to carry the show,” Stripe says, after dismissing that “looks” are not an influencing factor. “But,” he adds, “she must be as good of an actor as she is a dancer, and have a nice expression.”

Finding one girl to fit the bill can be tough, made harder by the fact that the company likes to have Clara played by a local girl from each city they visit. Luckily, Stripe says they get lots of girls who come out to audition, all of them dreaming of being chosen for the role. Last year, their Victoria audition turned out 250 hopefuls. Though she’s played almost every other female role, Dobler never got to be Clara. But she remembers wishing for it. “I think every girl dreams of being that chosen girl. To have the opportunity of being singled out up on stage for almost the entire ballet. Yeah, we all wanted that.”

Jennifer and Alexandra Gibson are local twins who were fortunate enough to play the coveted character in 2003. “It’s one of the highlights of my life,” Jennifer, says. Both Jennifer and Alexandra, now 17, note that after getting over the initial shock of being chosen, they welcomed the challenge of taking on the largest ballet role available to someone of their age. Alexandra says it was exciting. “It was amazing watching it grow from rehearsals until it finally all came together,” she says. “The lights, the costumes, and getting to perform in front of a big audience, that’s something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” But there were also a few hiccups, Alexandra talks of her dress coming undone in the middle of one scene, and having to continue as if nothing was amiss. “I had to learn quickly how to cover up a mistake,” she says.

Grand-Maître has his own stories about the challenges to newcomers faced with the glare of the spotlight. He remembers having to help out a fellow dancer when he was in the show in his younger days. “There was this little boy, and it was his first time on stage, and he was just shaking, so I held his hand. As soon as the music started,” Grand-Maître’s voice lowers, “he peed on-stage.” Recalling the butterflies of his own first performance, Grand-Maître immediately led the boy off-stage and gave him a pep talk, assuring him that he didn’t have to go back on. The boy, however, found the resolve to go back out, and performed well the rest of the evening.

Dobler also admits to being nervous when she was 13-years-old and landed her first role (as a reindeer). For her, being near the professional dancers for the first time was a surreal experience. “These are your role models,” she says, “you hope to one day make it as far as they have. It makes you afraid to mess up.” But after she had been in the show for a few years as a professional dancer, Dobler found that The Nutcracker experience became more about camaraderie. One confession that makes Dobler giggle is the running tradition for the cast to play practical jokes on one another during performances. There’s one scene in particular that’s often a target for mayhem: when the governess brings in a tray of tea, other dancers will often have placed ‘items’ meant to surprise and distract the poor dancer playing the governess. I ask Dobler for examples, but she responds guardedly with, “Oh, sometimes we’ll put chocolate bars or rude notes…” She looks away, blushing. For her own part, Dobler has tried a few jokes, like changing choreography at the last minute to mix up her colleagues. It didn’t work though—she ended up missing beats and had to hurry off stage, the laughing-stock of her friends waiting in the wings. “I’m horrible at practical jokes,” she notes.

The life of the ballet troupe seems very exotic, but these quasi-celebrities are transported to cities they tour by bus, and since the cast and crew greatly expands in a show as big as The Nutcracker (they average a cast of 100), each dancer goes from having two seats to themselves to sitting as tight as kids on a field trip. Dobler laughs, “It’s…cozy. But we play games, watch movies.” When you spend more time with a group of people than your own family (aside from rehearsals and class, dancers also usually work most holidays), they really become a surrogate family, with all the love-hate mentality that comes with it. “We can definitely get on each other’s nerves,” she laughs, “but we really are close-knit.”

As of this last October, however, that has changed for Dobler; she has just retired. “I decided it was time to say goodbye, time to try something new,” she says. She’s not sure what she’s going to do next, but is excited about the possibilities. Dobler readily admits that her body is not as supple as it once was and that she’ll be glad for the rest; emotionally, however, is where it becomes more difficult.

“When I think about leaving I have my good days, and the days where I’m a blubbering mess. I can’t imagine the identity crisis I’m going to face afterwards. This isn’t just a job. It’s part of who I am, it’s a way of life.” This will be the first time she hasn’t danced The Nutcracker in 17 years. It’ll be the first time she cannot share in the fears and small mishaps, the hard work and noble pride, the friendships and the quiet grace that is the true magic behind the wonders of the seen stage. Nevertheless, she’s determined to be a part of the show—as an avid fan in the audience. “I want to still support everyone,” she says. And, she hints, in a few years she would like to start a family and eventually bring her own kids to experience the show—because even when you know what goes on backstage, and even if you’ve seen or been in The Nutcracker a hundred times, it’s still a wonder to behold.

Catch Alberta Ballet’s The Nutcracker on its multi-city tour:
Victoria Nov 24 – 26
Spokane Dec 8 – 10
Edmonton Dec 15 – 17
Calgary Dec 21 – 24
Vancouver Dec 28 – 31
Call 245-4222 for more information.—Laura Pellerine

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