This weekend marks the opening performances of New York City Ballet's The Nutcracker. And, just as in every holiday season since 1954, dozens of young students from the School of American Ballet will feel the extraordinary transformation of becoming a performer.
In 1986, '87, and '88, I was one of those kids. In the early fall of '86, I'd only been at SAB for a couple of weeks before the huge event happened: the Nutcracker audition. Having no idea what it all meant, I let myself be swept up in my fellow students' excitement, hung onto every word of their veteran-dancer insight, and walked into the audition studio on a September Saturday afternoon with no expectations (since I didn't know what to expect anyway), no hopes, and therefore, no risk of disappointment.
As it turned out, I did the audition steps for Pollichinelles (emboites across the floor, pique arabesque, chasse, tour jete, and balance) well enough to be cast as Boy #4 in Cast B.
I didn't even know what I was excited about-- but I sure was! And so was my mom, who had waited, much more nervous than I had been, for hours in the hallway outside before I finally emerged from the studio. We rode home on the bus, looking at stack of papers I'd been given with schedules and rules and policies about the important responsibility of being a child performer with New York City Ballet.
In an article in the New York Times a few days ago, Gia Kourlas wrote about this year's children's cast being unusually inexperienced: due to the Covid shake-up, 2020 and 2021's casts were made up of much older children than usual. The typical progression through the roles from shortest/youngest to tallest/oldest got disrupted. Gia points out in her article that there really is magic in seeing how the tiniest children can dance so magnificently alongside adults: "If last year’s production proved anything, it was that size and spirit matter. The littler the children are, the more enormous the stage seems, lending the tale enchantment." The size differential that Balanchine insisted upon is a masterful touch as striking as the grand Christmas tree that grows to astounding height in Act. 1.
There has been some outrage on social media channels about perceived, slightly veiled, discrimination against taller students in this practice of casting the shortest students capable of handling any given role in The Nutcracker. The criticism is that there's an implication that smaller equals better in all senses, at all times, in a dancer's career. I dispute that assertion..
Yes, there was some disappointment when I grew out of the most senior children's roles in Nutcracker (and yes, I regretted having arrived at SAB already too tall to be in Party Scene), but it passed very quickly-- there were many more exciting, bigger-deal things just around the corner. After one Nutcracker-less year, I was advanced enough to be chosen to dance with a semi-professional company in the adult corps de ballet roles of their production of The Nutcracker (also Balanchine's version). And I know that today, there are even more performance opportunities for SAB students at all levels than there were in my day.
Being a child performer in The Nutcracker changed my life. (For a lot more on that, see Chapter 10, "The First Nutcracker" in Being a Ballerina). The experiences of being entrusted with an important responsibility (dancing at a high level on a major stage for thousands of people over several weeks alongside the best professional dancers in the world!), of putting in months of intense, serious rehearsals (I learned tings about technique in those rehearsals that I carried with me for the rest of my life), and then, the ultimate: being in the theater, backstage, on stage, in the wings, next to those world class dancers, smelling that unmistakable smell of a theater, feeling the lights, learning the ropes and being proud of what I was doing-- I credit all of that with pointing me towards my north star. There was never a decision moment, but I knew that the theater was my home.
So when I hear protests that casting very young children over taller ones is unfair, or is embedding those left out with a sense that their size is a defect, I say no. It's not about discrimination, it's about sparking a flame in young dancers who may not realize what's possible in life, teaching invaluable lessons, and carrying on Balanchine's legacy, all while putting on an incredible production.