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The Nutcracker magic

A magia do Quebra-Nozes

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'During the long, long day of the twenty-fourth of December, the children of Doctor Stahlbaum were forbidden from entering the parlour. Fritz and Marie nestled together in the back chamber as dusky twilight came on. In hushed tones Fritz was telling his little sister that he had not long before seen a little dark man glide along the corridor with a large box under his arm, but he knew full well that it was only Godfather Drosselmeier. At this Marie clapped her little hands for joy and exclaimed, ‘Oh what do you imagine Godfather Drosselmeier has made for us this time?’

So begins the story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, which would inspire one of the most beloved repertoire ballets. Every winter season, ballet companies all over the world present The Nutcracker as it captures the spirit of Christmas like no other. We follow the story of Clara (sometimes called Marie) who befriends a nutcracker doll that comes to life on Christmas eve. Together, they battle against the Mouse King, travel through the land of snow into the Kingdom of Sweets, where they meet the Sugar Plum fairy.

In Sir Peter Wright’s production, one The Royal Ballet has performed for over thirty-five years, Clara and her brother are found in the midst of a jolly Christmas party, overwhelmed by all the adornments, guests, presents, much dancing and, of course, the presence of Drosselmeier. Although it is a bright and joyful act, there are moments in it that I find quite unsettling. Tchaikovsky's music seems to fill the scene with suspense. What could be so mysterious about this godfather and his magic tricks?

General rehearsal 2020, photo Andrej Uspenski

When the clock strikes midnight and Clara finds herself alone, strange figures appear to haunt her. The house is transformed to stage a fierce battle amongst soldiers and mice. It is all very frightening for a young girl, but this is not even half of the story. In the fairy tale, the poor Nutcracker has to defeat a seven-headed Mouse King!

Having finally read Hoffmann’s text, I understood why there is an ominous side to the ballet. It is based on quite a sombre tale. Most original fairy tales, in fact, have a dark side to them. Gladly for the audience and especially the young ones, Act II is all about sparkles and fun, with amazing diverts and a beautiful pas de deux. All ends well! Was it just a dream?! Even Hoffmann leaves us wondering...

The Nutcracker has a special place in everyone’s heart, as it very much does in mine. Every December, mom used to take my brother and I to see The Nutcracker at Teatro Sergio Cardoso, presented by Cisne Negro Cia de Dança. I very much looked forward to it! Directed by Hulda Bittencourt, the Brazilian company has kept this tradition going for over forty years. A few years back, while on holiday in Sao Paulo, I was lucky to be able to take class with them and watch a studio rehearsal, witnessing first-hand their love and commitment for the art.

Besides the dancing and the music, part of what mesmerised me about the Nutcracker productions was how grown-ups arrived at the party in long winter coats and scarves, and the kids wore warm, lacy dresses and long-sleeved jackets. The fire was on, and it was snowing outside! The only Christmas I had ever known was a hot and humid one right in the middle of summer. We children wore our lightest clothes and the next day were playing in the swimming pool, having a big barbecue outdoors.

I believe there is something truly magical about celebrating Christmas in the winter, about drinking hot chocolate by the fireplace and spending a cozy afternoon with the family gathered indoors. I love wandering around the Christmas markets, watching the trees and buildings light up around the city, the anticipation that builds up... that is what makes the cold days and early sunsets a little more tolerable. Everyone hopes for a white Christmas. It is no wonder Clara's Christmas Eve seemed so alien to me, and why she dances around with snow flakes!

Christmas time in Covent Garden with the family.

When I was little, I also watched countless times a tape of the 1993 film with The New York City Ballet, starring Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker and Jessica Lynn as sweet Marie. Perhaps it is the very source of my deepest desires to be dancing Clara, but before I had my chance at it, I was to be a little tap-dancing present and a marzipan in an adapted version of the ballet. My mom's school show was called A Christmas Dream.

At thirteen, in a revival of Ballet Marcia Lago's A Christmas Dream, I did my first Clara. The year was 2001 and it was marked by great personal achievements, when I had just begun to show signs of a promising future as a dancer. That was to be the only main role I ever did as my mom's student. Little did we know that I'd soon be setting off to Canada to further enhance my ballet training.

Throughout my professional career, Clara would continue to fill me with joy and great sense of achievement. It was the first big role I did with Northern Ballet, and a few years later, with The Royal Ballet. Up in Leeds, the winter season would usually open at the Grand Theatre, then tour to many places around the UK. With Northern Ballet, I also played the role of Louise (who becomes the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act II). It was a time of much learning and growth, one I will cherish forever. My partner was Hiro Takahashi, an experienced dancer who taught me a great many things, one of them being to let HIM do the partnering!

A very smily Sugar Plum fairy and her cavalier

It so happens for inexperienced ballerinas that we try to do too much, becoming stiff and rigid, in order to “help” the men. In reality, it only makes things more difficult for them. We might be anticipating things too much, making it hard for them to know where our weight is and put us on balance. If you try and jump in preparation for a big lift and you are not coordinated with your partner, it will seem like you weigh a ton, no matter how petite you are.

The men have a very tough job at supporting us, making us feel comfortable to move freely, lifting and bringing us down graciously, making it all look effortless. We have to be very aware of each other and work together. Every dancer is different and has a different technique which may require slight adjustments, but the more you work with someone, the more you get to know them and their preferences. You find ways of communicating through movement, and you get used to being partnered a certain way. It is said that when a ballerina looks good onstage, it means she's got a very good partner!

Performing the Nutcracker pas de deux as a student with Alexandre Queruba. Brilliant partner, coach, and friend.

Partnering is not just about executing moves flawlessly and being strong and coordinated. There has to be a connection between the ballerina and her partner, something that emanates trust and ease for those who are watching. This usually happens when the couple has got a certain 'chemistry' onstage, like in romantic relationships, when one can communicate with the other by a simple look. They speak the same language and appear to feed off this exchange of energy. Good partners bring out the very best in each other.

Australian dancer Benjamin Ella and I had been partners in The Nutcracker since my debut as Clara in 2017. We have also danced together in other ballets, such as Crystal Pite's Flight Pattern, and I can always feel a special connection with him. Besides being an extraordinary dancer, he is also caring, supportive, a real pleasure to work with. To my surprise, I was to discover this year that I was not to be partnered up with Ben, and I confess feeling slightly nervous as to who my new prince would be… He'd have a tough role to fill.

Fortunately, working with Luca, my new partner, has also being a real pleasure! I always wondered why him and I had never really danced together before, since the pairings have a lot to do with heights. Things have run very smoothly from day one of rehearsals, and we have learned to trust each other. I’m very lucky indeed to have such sweet partners, who are willing to make it look the best it can, and who truly are inspiring artists. We go on a journey together, as it is always a learning experience. In the end, we get to share an indescribable moment onstage that stays in our memories forever.

With Luca Acri. Photos by Andrej Uspenski @dancersdiary

Besides my new (and hopefully continuous) partnership with Luca, there are so many things that make this years' Nutcracker feel different and even more special than ever. Due to this pandemic, we've had to overcome many obstacles in order to bring this production to life, from the basic principle of not being able to get everybody together in one studio (therefore not having our usual run-throughs), not having Chris Karr scream in our ears, to re-choreographing scenes and keeping them socially distanced.

We've created a "covid-safe" adaptation, a reworked Nutcracker. There are less people involved in the ballet, a childless battle scene, less diverts, but plenty of energy and appreciation. Everything can change from one day to the next, but for now, we are grateful for being able to work and keep up with this amazing Christmas tradition. We might not get the same wild reception of a crowded theatre, but we know how much our performances mean to those who are present, and also to those watching the magic unfold from their tv screens or laptops.

Every time I perform Clara, it feels a little different. I remember how amazing it was to be dancing the role with Northern Ballet, and the indescribable emotion I felt when doing it in the Royal Opera House stage. My heart is filled with sweet memories of her, but looking at pictures of when I was just a young girl, performing at my mom's school, my heart fills with a nostalgia I can't quite explain. The excitement was unreal. I couldn't contain myself with happiness on that stage, it felt like nothing could ever go wrong. I was simply part of the magic.

For me, dancing has always been about love, not letting things get in the way of how good it makes you feel and how happy it makes others. I realise that I still hold on to that naiveté, the excitement of experiencing things for the very first time. I look for that genuine feeling of happiness when I'm dancing. Instead of trying to be or act like my idols, the inspiration I've been searching for has been right here all along. It is in my essence, the child within me.

Ballet Marcia Lago, 2001.

This year, I get to share my performance as Clara with an even wider audience, people from all over the world who will tune in to watch The Nutcracker Reworked being live-streamed on the 22nd of December. It means my parents, relatives, and friends can also watch from Brazil! This makes me extremely happy, honoured, and grateful for this opportunity. I hope that it brings magic and joy to many people's homes this Christmas.

To book tickets, head to

'Preparing for a role' is a post I wrote in August about every step of a dancer's journey to the stage, including more of my own preparations for Clara. Click here.

The Nutcracker (1993), NYC Ballet. The entire film can be found on YouTube.

#theatre #ballet #arts #nutcracker #christmas #dance #tradition #performance #royalballet

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