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The Nutcracker magic

A magia do Quebra-Nozes

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The Nutcracker and the Mouse King was written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, and it would inspire one of the most beloved ballets in the classical repertoire. The Nutcracker captures the spirit of Christmas like no other. We follow the story of a girl 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 and into the Kingdom of Sweets to meet the Sugar Plaum Fairy and her Prince. But there is so much more than that to the story...

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 a 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 book, the poor Nutcracker has to defeat a seven-headed Mouse King!

Having finally read Hoffmann’s tale, I understood why there is an ominous side to the ballet. Like most original fairy tales, it has a dark side to it. But gladly for the audience, especially 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...

This story 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 presented by Cisne Negro Cia de Dança. Directed by Dany Bittencourt, the Brazilian company has kept this tradition going for forty years, and I've been lucky enough to perform with them for two consecutive years, together with my dance partner Luca Acri.

We witnessed first-hand their love and commitment for bringing the Nutcracker magic to families every year, and felt honoured to present a little piece of Sir Peter Wright's version as their Sugar Plum and Prince.

Photo by Reginaldo Azevedo

Besides the dancing and the music, part of what mesmerised me about their production was that children were playing in the snow and grown-ups arrived at the party in long coats and scarves. It was so different to what I had ever known Christmas to be like... hot and humid, playing in the pool, having a barbecue.

I have come to learn that there is something truly special about celebrating Christmas in the winter, drinking hot chocolate by the fire, and spending a cozy afternoon with the family gathered indoors. I love seeing the trees and buildings light up all around Covent Garden To me, it is what makes the cold, dark winter days a little more tolerable.

Christmas time in Covent Garden with the family.

When I was little, I watched a video tape of the 1993 film with The New York City Ballet countless times, starring Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker and Jessica Lynn as Marie. Perhaps it is the very source of my deepest desire to be 'Clara', but before I had my go at it, I was to be a little tap-dancing present and a marzipan.

I had just turned thirteen. It was a year marked by great personal development, when I had begun to show real signs of a promising future in dance. I was to play my very first Clara in mum's dance school show, an adaptation called The Christmas Dream.

From that very first encounter and 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, my very job, and a few years later with The Royal Ballet.

With Northern Ballet, I also played the role of Louise, a sister 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 deal, most importantly 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 to find our balance. If you try and jump in preparation for a big lift and you are not coordinated with your partner, it is ten times harder for him to lift you, no matter how petite you are.

The men have a very hard 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 find ways of communicating through movement. It is said that when a ballerina looks good onstage, it means she's in very good hands!

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, they speak the same language and appear to feed off each other's energy. They bring out the very best in each other.

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 more recently as Espada and Mercedes in Don Quixote. I always feel a special connection with him. Besides being an extraordinary dancer, he is also caring, supportive, and a real pleasure to work with.

Mercedes and Espada © Andrej Uspenski

For three years now, I have been working with Luca Acri, and it has also been a real pleasure! Him and I had never really danced together before, but I always felt we would be a good match. Things ran very smoothly from day one of rehearsals, and we have forged a great partnership. I’m very lucky indeed to have had such sweet partners who are willing to make us look our very best, and who truly are telling the story. We get to share an indescribable moment onstage that stays in my memory forever.

With Luca Acri. Photos by Andrej Uspenski

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. It as pure excitement. I couldn't contain myself with happiness and 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 for Clara comes from my very essence, the child within me.

Ballet Marcia Lago, 2001.

The Nutcracker (1993), NYC Ballet.



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