The temperature was still sizzling in the 90s, but inside the Ballet Abilene studio, 43 nine- to-12-year-old girls were already thinking about Christmas on a Saturday in September. It was The Nutcracker audition day, the day that each year marks the beginning of the performing season for Abilene Ballet Theatre.
Over 65 dancers attended one of two auditions that day, already dreaming of their next role in The Nutcracker, seen by many as the official start of the Christmas season. Their usual chatter was replaced by nervous anticipation as they pinned an audition number on their leotards and lined up at the barre in numerical order. Kevin Freeman of Dallas, a frequent guest artist for ABT, conducted the audition classes, teaching barre and center floor combinations that the dancers performed while artistic directors Nancy Gore and Lisa Etter observed and made notes as they considered casting the upcoming Nutcracker ballet.
Beginning at the age of nine, dancers have the opportunity to audition for the Abilene Ballet Theatre company, divided into Junior I and II and Senior I and II, depending on age and ability. Dancers under the age of nine don’t audition and are given roles based on their class level. Within a few weeks, the cast list is posted and The Nutcracker season begins. By mid-September, dancers are rehearsing on most weekends and during the week in preparation for the performances, which take place the weekend before Thanksgiving.
One of the most recognized and beloved ballets around the world, The Nutcracker tells the story of Clara, who is given the special gift of a Nutcracker at her parents’ grand Christmas Eve party. Her brother Fritz, in a fit of jealousy, breaks the Nutcracker, but her mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer is thankfully able to fix it. Later, Clara falls asleep cradling her beloved Nutcracker and is swept into a dream, where the family Christmas tree magically grows, the walls of her home fade away, and she becomes the heroine of a battle between skittering mice and the Nutcracker and his army of soldiers. She is whisked away in a dream by her Nutcracker prince through a glittering enchanted forest to the Land of the Sweets, where she is delighted and entertained by various dances representing delicacies and sweets of the kingdom. At the end of the ballet, her parents find her asleep, still holding her Nutcracker toy and dreaming of sparkling snowflakes, waltzing flowers, dancing candy canes and her Nutcracker prince.
Behind this magical dream that’s brought to life on the stage are the planning and the muscle that make Nutcracker happen every year. There are rehearsals nearly every day of the week, guest artists to hire, costumes to distribute and alter, new costumes to make, grants to write, the program to put together, and sets and props to transport to and from the Paramount Theatre. The ABT board of directors pitches in by selling advertisements for the program, selling tickets and working at the Sugar Plum Fairy Tea and the Nutcracker Boutique with help from the Guild. During dress rehearsal week, parents stay busy delivering meals to their dancers at the Paramount; keeping them stocked with tights, bobby pins and hair spray; sewing costumes and shoes; and taking hundreds of photos and videos.
While preparations have remained largely the same, although on a larger scale, the production has evolved since ABT first performed The Nutcracker in 1987. At the time, the company rented scenery, and the snow scene backdrop consisted of black tulle with hanging glitter snowflakes, according to Gore. John Lawson, the man who played Drosselmeyer in some of the earlier productions, painted a backdrop one year in an unheated empty space in River Oaks shopping center. “I don’t know how he kept his hands from freezing,” Gore said.
After hosting the Regional Dance America/Southwest Festival in 1993, the company had enough funds to purchase new backdrops custom-made for the Paramount by Peter Wolf of Dallas. They first purchased party scene and Land of the Sweets backdrops and later added the snow scene backdrop. At the time, backdrops cost about $5,000 each. Additional proscenium pieces – the area surrounding the stage opening – were added in later years. Costumes for the first years of the production were either used from other ballets that ABT performed or newly made and have been replaced or repurposed as needed through the years.
Many dancers grow up performing in The Nutcracker, and their progress is marked by the roles they play each year. Before fulfilling their dreams of becoming a Sugar Plum Fairy or Clara or Peacock, the youngest dancers learn to “fly” as tiny angels and spend many rehearsals learning to “skitter” like mice. When they move up to perform the party girl roles, they all whirl and twirl around the studio the first time they put on coveted party girl dresses and spend rehearsal time practicing their acting skills and learning party girl dances.
Dancers also look forward to the day when they promote into actual dressing rooms in the Paramount Theatre. With over 120 dancers performing in The Nutcracker, dressing room space is scarce, and the youngest dancers dress in the “tunnel,” the area of the Paramount that leads from the concession stand in the basement to the dressing rooms beneath the stage. On any given night, scores of mice and angels keep busy with iphones, coloring books and games while waiting for their turn to perform while some of their mothers remain in the tunnel to dispense snacks, maintain order, calm nerves and help with last-minute costume and makeup issues. Dancers (and their mothers!) await the day when they “graduate” from the tunnel into real dressing rooms as they get older and have more roles to dance. It’s almost a rite of passage for these little ones as they grow into coveted “big girl” roles.
Berkley, a fourth-grader,is one of the dancers who has progressed through the ranks of Nutcracker roles. She has performed as a tiny angel, a mouse and a gingerbread and is in her second year as a party girl. She is also performing as one of the harlequin dolls. Berkley said her favorite role so far has been a party girl. “I like the dresses and getting to be in the party scene,” she said. Like many young dancers, Berkley would like to perform the role of Clara someday. She said that in order to earn that role she would have to “practice a whole lot.” She said she might even like to be the Sugar Plum Fairy one day.
Emily is a mouse this year but would like to be Clara one day as well. “I can just curl my hair and don’t have to wear a hairpiece,” she said. She would also like to be the Snow Queen and the peacock. “I just like peacocks,” she said, adding that she has some peacock feathers from the zoo and is doing a report on peacocks.
Many a mouse or angel has dreamed of someday performing one of the lead roles in The Nutcracker, such as Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen or the Peacock. Years of training are usually required to obtain the skills and ability to perform these roles. Many dancers acquire additional training during the summer months by attending summer intensive programs with various ballet companies around the country. Acceptance into most programs is through auditions conducted during national audition tours throughout the U.S. ABT dancers have most recently studied with Joffrey Ballet School in New York and Los Angeles, Joffrey Elite Ecole, Dance Theatre Southwest, Ballet Austin, Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, SummerWind at the University of Oklahoma, Texas Ballet Theatre, and Tulsa Ballet. Several dancers also are studying in year-round programs. Alexander Maryianowski dances with Houston Ballet II, and Peyton Edington is studying at the Interlochen Arts Academy.
Many children will never take ballet lessons or perform in a ballet on stage; however, they have the opportunity to experience the wonder of seeing a live ballet production through ABT’s school performances. An abbreviated version of The Nutcracker is performed for free for over 2,400 fourth graders from the Big Country each year. Gore said that over the years ABT has entertained over 57,000 school children.
“Some of them have never been to the Paramount Theatre, much less seen a live performance. It’s a field trip they look forward to all year,” said Gore. One year she overheard a little boy who walked into the Paramount remark, “Wow! It’s a palace!”
Gore said she receives thank you letters from students every year with compliments about the production. One student said: “It was the most wonderful, fabulous, gorgeous Nutcracker in the World. I love the costumes. It is the best. It made me cry. It was gorgeous.” Another commented: “I thought the mice were adorable, especially when the Nutcracker chopped off the mouse’s tail. It was hilarious. It was the best ballet ever!” Another said:
“My favorite part was when the peacock from the Arabian dance came down the aisle. She was the prettiest peacock I will ever see in my life.”
Nutcracker performance dates:
Friday, November 22, 8 p.m.
Saturday, November 23, 2:30 p.m. & 8 p.m.
Sunday, November 24, 2:30 p.m.
$40 Patrons/$25 adults/$10 seniors & students
Tickets will be available from 1-5 p.m. beginning Monday, November 18 in the Paramount lobby or by calling