This past weekend, I performed in the Nutcracker, 20 (that’s TWENTY) years after my Nutcracker “debut” as the trumpeter in New York City Ballet’s production at Lincoln Center. Despite the challenge it was to do it (i.e., running to my car to pump milk on breaks, or wearing Ayden in a carrier during tech week rehearsals), it was a profound experience for me on so many levels.
My role was Clara’s (or Marie’s) mother and it entailed mostly acting with some simple dancing as well. I was only in the first scene, the Party Scene, and then the show moves on to the battle scene, snow, and Act two.
Over the years I have danced many different parts in the Nutcracker- Snow, Flowers, Spanish, Mouse, Marzipan, and even Dewdrop when I freelanced with a Pennsylvania company back in 2006, however all of those roles have turned into somewhat of a blur to me now. Sometimes when I hear the music, I will get a few counts of choreography come to me from the various roles I’ve performed, but most often, that is not the case. For the most part, it’s gone. Which makes sense. I’m not in living in the ballet world any more, so there is no need for my subconscious to hold on to the choreography of Nutcracker’s past.
There is one exception however and that is the role I danced twenty years ago, the Trumpeter at New York City Ballet. The trumpeter, as far as I know, is not a coveted role for little ones at the School of American Ballet. Most little girls want to be in the party scene, an Angel, or a Polichinelle. However, looking back, I can say that having the role of Trumpeter was one of the most impactful experiences of my entire life! Yet I wasn’t even aware of how much so until this past weekend.
I walked off stage at the end of the Party scene, and the transition to the battle scene was under way. Suddenly, I was not adult-Courtney watching from backstage, but I was 9-year old Courts at the New York State Theater, so excited and just a bit nervous, standing behind the dark scrim, counting each beat of the music up to count 18 when the huge tree finishes growing and loudly locks into place, and then waiting for that one swift moment when the scrim is lifted and I am standing tall with my trumpet in place, elbows lifted, and being still as humanly possible while the main character Marie comes up to me, amazed that a toy solider is life-size. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of people in the audience but all I can see out there is darkness. My mom is up in the 5th ring Standing Room (remember when those tickets were $10?) and I know that my mom is cheering me on from way up there.
The trumpeter has eight counts of choreography while nothing else is going on onstage. I can still hear Garielle Whittle (former ballet mistress at the School of American Ballet) yelling out “Sharper, Courtney! Bigger, Coutney!” in my head as my music plays. After the eight counts, it’s on to marching- eight counts in each direction, and it goes on from there. The choreography, and all accompanying corrections I’d received, comes over me as if I’ve been practicing it daily for the past twenty years (trust me, I haven't!). I truly feel it’s embedded into my cells, maybe even my DNA. Who knows, maybe Skyden will grow up and spontaneously dance the Trumpeter’s part when the battle scene music comes on! But seriously, why is this role so much a part of me, twenty years later, while all other roles have come and gone?
Other details and anecdotes come flooding back as well, like the time when during a final dress rehearsal, Peter Martins spoke through the loudspeaker to tell give me a spacing direction. My mom happened to be watching that rehearsal from the audience, and I remember how excited she was about my getting a “personal correction” from Peter Martins. Her excitement got my giddy with delight!
And then there was the fact that I was getting paid for my performances, at a mere nine years old! At the end of the 24 performances, my check came in the mail. My parents asked me if I wanted them to photocopy the check before it was deposited, so I could save it as a memento. I said yes! (and I still have it today) I told my parents that I wanted to be able to spend my money in whatever way I chose, and they agreed. I remember how proud I was walking into the Gap across the street from the School of American Ballet, and telling my mom which silver winter jacket I wanted, as well as a one-shoulder bag. The rest I’d put towards my ballet summer program.
At nine years old, the Nutcracker taught me so many invaluable life lessons. Discipline, dedication, ultimate professionalism, respect, unity, musicality- these are just a few of the many lessons woven into my Nutcracker experience.
And now, 20 years later, to come full-circle, and dance in a more “mature” role as a Party scene parent, with my two babies watching (and hearing Skyden squeeling with delight, “Mommy! Mommy!”) from the audience, was a magical gift I could give myself.