It's 7 o'clock on a mid-November Monday evening, a time when most 10-year-olds are doing their homework. But in a brightly lit Lincoln Center rehearsal room, 14 children stand at attention, curtsy, leap, and run in circles to the music of Tchaikovsky as a no-nonsense ballet mistress watches from the corner. In less than two weeks, these young dancers will appear onstage in the New York City Ballet's production of The Nutcracker, one of the city's signature holiday events -- but before they get there, their marching will have to improve. "Let's try that again," says Garielle Whittle, a former City Ballet dancer now in her 20th year of training young dancers to perform the choreography of George Balanchine. In just two months of intense work, Whittle prepares 100 children ranging in age from 8 to 13 to give professional-quality performances in this holiday classic. Just after casting had been completed last fall, Child was granted a rare behind-the-scenes look at how The Nutcracker comes together.
There are no formal auditions for The Nutcracker, merely a session in early October in which students at the School of American Ballet (the official academy of City Ballet) line up according to age and height and are assigned roles by Whittle. In fact, the selection process is referred to as a "costume fitting" because, in some cases, the child who fits a costume best will get the role. As a year-round instructor at the ballet school, Whittle knows the children well, which is helpful since those who appear in the party scene and play soldiers have only a year or two of training.
The most coveted roles are the heroine, Marie, and her prince. "I look for a spark -- an intelligence and special energy," Whittle says of casting the featured parts, "something that sets the kids apart. It's hard to describe, but you know it when you see it." Parents aren't allowed to observe casting, classes, or rehearsals; their role is limited to chauffering the kids and styling their hair before performances. Whittle says parents never try to interfere with her work. "They know better," she says mildly.
Although Whittle's keen eye ensures that most of the costumes fit their young wearers, a few lucky dancers get to visit City Ballet's costume shop for minor alterations. Amazingly, some of the wool jackets designed for Balanchine's original 1954 production are still in use, and they look awfully tiny hanging on racks in the fitting room. On a sunny afternoon in early November, several girls have been called in for a session with director of costumes Holly Hynes. Rebecca Distler, 11, is quickly transformed into a soldier, a part always played by girls in yet another throwback to the 1950s. (These days, the cast includes 14 boys, a reflection of their heightened interest in ballet.) This will be Rebecca's second Nutcracker, and she declares, "I never get nervous. We rehearse so much that the performances feel like a big rehearsal."
Rebecca began dance lessons at 3 and successfully auditioned for the School of American Ballet when she was 8. "It's a very supportive atmosphere," says her mother, Joanne. The Distlers live in Manhattan, but some children commute from nearby suburbs, doing homework in the car or in the theater's lounge. Like Rebecca, most maintain excellent grades in spite of classes that eat up three or more after-school hours a week, plus 36 hours of Nutcracker rehearsals and 23 performances
Over the pianist's rendition of Tchaikovsky's party music, Whittle counts repeatedly from 1 to 8 as her young dancers run in a circle. Though they're playing the offspring and friends of a circa-1900 German family, this cast of children boasts 21st-century diversity: Marie is played by a Chinese-American girl, and her stage brother, Fritz, is portrayed by a Japanese-American boy. The kids are bright and spirited, but Whittle has their full attention as she guides rehearsal with a firm hand.
"The discipline of ballet is wonderful for children," she says. "They learn to concentrate and work well with others." There's much to absorb in only a few weeks, but Whittle gives each child specific instructions and says she has never had to replace a cast member due to stage fright or lack of effort. "I've seen kids who were a bit shy blossom during rehearsals," she says. "The experience of being in The Nutcracker is a huge self-esteem boost." Confidence is encouraged; showing off is not. "It's just not tolerated at the school," Whittle says. "There's an understanding that if you can't behave nicely, you're not going to last."
Most young children enter the school simply to pursue a strong interest in ballet, and few of them grow up to become professionals. "At this age, it's hard to say who will stay with it," Whittle says. "Their bodies and interests change so much." Dancers who are accepted into the school as teenagers make a more serious commitment and receive training that prepares them to join City Ballet or another professional company. After two decades guiding ballet students, Whittle says, "I see my kids all over town, and I always recognize them. One is a radiologist now; I recently ran into one who became a lawyer."
With 50 children and assorted chaperones packed into an auditorium under the New York State Theater, one would expect pre-performance pandemonium. Instead, boys and girls sit quietly playing jacks (a Nutcracker tradition) and doing homework. Only the colorful array of foam rollers and plastic makeup cases suggests that these youngsters are about to go onstage. Pastel fuzzy slippers and cotton pajamas are the favored backstage attire, perfect for a quick dinner of pizza, burgers, or microwaved mac & cheese. "Livi, you look so pretty!" a little girl squeals to her friend, resplendent in blonde ringlets.
About a half hour before the 6 p.m. curtain, it's time to don those vintage costumes. Boys and girls retreat to separate rooms and emerge dressed for the fanciest holiday party imaginable. In another area, the soldiers line up to have red circles applied to their cheeks, a low-tech operation in which a bottle cap is dipped in red paint, dabbed on cheeks, and then filled in. Advanced students accompany the children to the stage and help them take their positions. Parents remain below and watch on a TV monitor. (To see a performance live, they must buy tickets.)
Posing for Child's photographer, the costumed children seem happy and remarkably self-possessed. What's the best thing about being in The Nutcracker? "Going onstage, seeing the audience in front of you, and knowing that the performance is about to begin," says Shimon Ito, 12, a four-year veteran of the show. And then, with a quick wave, he and his friends head upstairs to the theater.
Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the December/January 2003 issue of Child magazine.