Blood, Sweat, and Snowflakes

What it’s like to dance The Nutcracker, the most brutal job in ballet.

Illustration of a ballerina dancing above flames and beneath snow and mistletoe.
Doris Liou

The Nutcracker is a ballet about a little girl’s journey into a magical land of sweets, warring rats, and colossal Christmas trees, but what’s most fantastical is the snow. It comes down in the finale of Act I, during the famed “Waltz of the Snowflakes,”* falling gently at first, a few glittering flakes at a time, then building into a magical blizzard so dense dancers fade into obscurity behind it.

I’ll tell you something about that snow. I had danced Nutcracker for years before seeing it performed live, and when I finally did, I had two reactions: It really looked like snow—pure, white, glittering snow. And I could still taste, from memory, those dusty gray pieces of shredded newspaper, reeking of fireproof chemical treatment, and inevitably gulped into my throat as I leaped across stage. My stomach would knot at the start of the music as I braced for 12 minutes of nonstop jumps and turns, exhaustion made terrifying by the flying scraps that blinded and choked me and made the floor slick as ice. In all my years it happened only once, but I worried each season that one of us would wipe out—and what a spectacle that would be, our tulle skirts pooled around us on the floor, while the other dancers zigzagged in midair to avoid the fallen.

From the plush seats of the theater, the Act I finale is breathtaking—all beauty and grace, the dancers light as snow. But I know, having moved on that stage, that they are taking imperceptible little breaths through their noses, and in their pointe shoes a new blister has started to bleed, and that when the curtain falls and they head backstage, rushing to change costumes for the next act, they’ll cough up gray. Yes, it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But for dancers performing in Nutcracker, the holiday season is also exhausting, repetitive, and seemingly unending.

Don’t take it from me. To begin with, the ballet arrives each flu season, and dancers are hardly immune. The New York City Ballet actually brings in a doctor to administer flu vaccinations, but most dancers simply stress the importance of remembering to sleep. It’s no easy task when, as it is for Columbia City Ballet’s Claire Rapp, The Nutcracker season is a touring one. “You get on a bus, perform, get back on the bus, and take class the next day. It is hard,” she told me. It’s also hard to squeeze rest into the mere hourlong break between twice-daily shows. “A lot of girls take naps during the day, but I struggle to nap,” said Nieve Corrigan, a NYCB corps member. Sometimes she doesn’t even manage a coffee run: “Even just going outside sometimes in that hour you have off is tiring.”

For most ballet companies in America, The Nutcracker churns out cash that will fund the rest of their shows for a year; at NYCB, it hauls in roughly 40 percent of the annual revenue. The show succeeds nationally because it has become a holiday staple for so many families, creating demand for between 15 and 50 performances a season. One advantage of that seasonal repetition is that when illness or injury strikes—which it inevitably does—last-minute substitutes are easy to find, since most company members have already performed all the roles.

Bonnie Boiter-Jolley, a principal at Columbia City Ballet in South Carolina, couldn’t list a role she hasn’t performed. “I’ve never been the Rat King,” she said finally. “I have been a rat, though.” San Francisco Ballet’s Benjamin Freemantle is similarly well-versed: “We could probably all fake it pretty well. Any part you put us in, we could make something of it.”

Blisters and corns are a predictable feature of the season, so much so that none of the dancers bother complaining about them. “We’re in our pointe shoes for so many hours, so that’s something that we all know is coming,” said the NYCB’s Alexa Maxwell. Male ballet dancers don’t wear pointe shoes, but they sympathize: “Our hearts go out to the flowers and snow,” as Freemantle put it.

You also don’t get to touch holiday treats. Some companies, like Columbia City Ballet, still require weekly weigh-ins from their dancers, and critics still demand the dancers be lithe. Nutcracker season is no time to indulge in peppermint bark and eggnog.

Beautiful costumes and headpieces make the show a delight for audiences, but a headache for the dancers—literally. For her first season with NYCB, Maxwell was obsessive about steadying her snow crown: “I put maybe 50 pins in there, and my head was always hurting.” But despite such diligence, malfunctions still sometimes occur. “I put so many pins in there, but obviously didn’t know what I was doing, and by the end of the scene, [the tiara] was sticking straight out from my face, dangling by one pin. It was so embarrassing. I thought I was going to get fired.” Dancers rarely make the same mistake twice, though: “Now, I only put in seven. You figure out where they need to be, and do the bare minimum.”

Dancers do appreciate the opportunity The Nutcracker affords to hone choreography. “It’s really a special thing to be able to repeat something over and over again,” Rapp said. “Because we work so hard and rehearse for so many hours—and then that thing you spent so long rehearsing usually disappears in a few hours.” For Cleveland Ballet’s Jonas Godwin, it’s an opportunity to experiment with physical articulation: “I’ll try new moments to give different arms, heads, or a different smile. There’s always work to be done, and I never get bored with that.” Maxwell avoids slipping into autopilot by considering the audience: “There are always people in the audience who have never seen Nutcracker before. And you have to remember that you have been doing this 49 times, but those people are only seeing it this once this season, and they spent money and this is exciting for them. When you think about it in that way, it brings something out of you.”

It’s a nice sentiment. It doesn’t extend offstage. When I mentioned the propensity of malls and stores to play The Nutcracker suite, Freemantle interrupted me. “Oh God! The music!” he said. “It’s not needed. For everyone else, it’s a nice surprise during shopping. For us? Nails on a chalkboard.”

Correction, Nov. 29, 2019: This post originally misidentified “Waltz of the Snowflakes.”