Arts & Culture

‘The Nutcracker’ is a big break for aspiring ballet dancers

Teddy Barzyk, middle, dances with Anna Socha, left, and Tillie Spoor during a rehearsal of the Carolina Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
Teddy Barzyk, middle, dances with Anna Socha, left, and Tillie Spoor during a rehearsal of the Carolina Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

A story on Sunday gave the wrong phone number for tickets for performances of Carolina Ballet's "Nutcracker" at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. The correct number is 919-719-0900.

Rachel Robinson first saw Carolina Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” when she was 3 years old. Soon after, her mother enrolled her in ballet class, and Rachel, 11, hasn’t stopped dancing since.

“I’ve seen it every year since I was a little kid,” said Rachel, a sixth-grader at Wakefield Middle School in Raleigh. Last year, she gathered up her courage and auditioned for the Christmas spectacular, hoping to be cast as a party girl.

Instead, she landed the starring role.

Often a child’s introduction to classical ballet, “The Nutcracker” is the world’s most widely viewed and performed ballet. The tale of young Clara, who dreams of a Nutcracker prince and a fierce battle against a mouse king, is synonymous with the holidays. And every little girl with the slightest interest in ballet dreams of being Clara.

In August, 200 children auditioned for the Carolina Ballet’s 2014 production, which begins Friday in Durham, then moves to Chapel Hill and finally to Raleigh.

For the 160 7- to 12-year-olds who won parts, the glamour of performing in a professional production is tempered by the commitment involved, including nearly three months of mandatory rehearsals.

“We talk about it a lot,” said Shelley Jacobsson, the show’s “child wrangler.” “This is a magical show and a real opportunity for them to be performing with real, professional dancers. It’s a privilege, and with that comes a level of commitment. There are things you give up, and they all do. They have to make a choice.”

More than good technique and commitment are required. The kids need to look like children. For months, Rachel had worried about the one requirement that was out of her control.

“All summer, she was saying ‘I don’t want to grow,’ ” said her mother, Cathy Robinson. Children must be under 5 feet tall to be in the show. At the audition, Rachel measured 4-foot-9.

Aside from Clara, the roles of party children are the most coveted. The elaborate party scene comprises nearly half of the first act. Under the twinkling lights of an enormous tree, Clara receives her prized gift, a nutcracker. Thirteen child dancers are needed.

“It’s a big deal to get chosen for the party scene,” Jacobsson said. “When you’re in, you’re there to work.”

From mouse to party girl

Tillie Spoor, 10, a fifth-grader at Underwood Elementary in Raleigh, had wished for a part in the party scene since playing a mouse last year.

“Nobody could see me under my mouse head – I was afraid (it) would fall off,” she recalled, confessing to a case of jitters during this year’s auditions. “I just wanted to get a better part.”

Tillie will trade the dreaded mouse head for a frilly dress and long curls as she dances the roles of party girl and gingerbread. “My favorite part is the party scene, when the dads pick us up.”

As for Rachel, she knew her success last year didn’t guarantee a repeat. But any worries were unfounded: She was chosen to reprise her role as Clara.

“Rachel is a pretty dancer,” Jacobsson said. “She has good form, good technique and a really great personality.”

Both girls have already begun to master the controlled, gentle movements and graceful arm gestures of ballerinas.

Rachel spends up to 13 hours a week dancing. She also studies tap and jazz at Carolina Dance Center in Raleigh. For “The Nutcracker,” she is expected to spend three to four hours a week in rehearsals.

“I stay up pretty late,” she said. Any spare moments are devoted to homework. “I don’t think my friends who don’t dance get it.”

Sunday rehearsals

While the show’s professional dancers were busy with other productions, the children began rehearsing in September.

Every Sunday afternoon, girls and boys file into the Carolina Ballet studios on Atlantic Avenue in Raleigh to learn the party scene. Children as young as 8, with bags slung over their shoulders, sign themselves in under Jacobsson’s watch. Rehearsals are off limits to parents.

“The Nutcracker” is an enormous production with many moving parts. Because of the relentless marathon of shows at three Triangle venues, the children do not perform in every one.

“There are two full casts of children,” Jacobsson said. Within that, there are four Claras and four groups of party girls. The children will perform in five to 10 shows, depending on their roles.

The way they are grouped is deliberate. Some performance times and venues carry more importance and call for stronger dancers. That hierarchy is not lost on the parents.

“I know the minute I push the button with the performance schedule, I will start hearing from parents whose kids aren’t in the top group,” Jacobsson said. Rachel and Tillie are among the best.

Zalman Raffael, the children’s ballet master, is charged with teaching the choreography. “Zali” is a perfectionist who demands professionalism from the youngsters, which can lead to exasperation when a performance doesn’t meet expectations.

“Things don’t just magically happen,” he tells the group after a series of steps falls flat. “You have to think about it, and you have to train your muscles to work a certain way. I want you guys to think about this stuff during the week.” He refuses to baby his charges, but often follows a harsh correction with encouraging remarks.

Learning while watching

Zali, 29, knows what it takes to pull this off. He began his training at age 8 at New York City’s prestigious School of American Ballet and only recently retired from dancing. He continues to work out with the company dancers, but now focuses on choreography.

The dancers learn in groups, the way they will perform shows. With only one set of youngsters dancing, they spend a majority of the two-hour rehearsal on the sidelines. But this is not a time to catch up on homework or chat with friends. Dancers are told to always be watching so they will know what to do.

The boys can be a challenge, Jacobsson said. She has boys herself, and understands. It’s hard for a wiggly 8-year-old to sit still. Nearly half the boys do not have a dance background.

“Boys are really hard to come by,” she said. “We want the ones who are taking class, but sometimes we take the ones who are taking theater and have stage presence. They have to be smart and know how to listen.”

During one rehearsal, Zali corrects a party boy. The youngster stomps off, and Zali exchanges glances with Jacobsson. He doesn’t think the boy is going to make it in this show. Jacobsson steps in, quietly telling the child that he is to learn from the corrections, not take them personally.

Young Tillie says working with boys is fun but sometimes frustrating.

“It’s different when they don’t even know how to hold your hand for turning,” she said. At the first rehearsal, one boy repeatedly stepped on her feet.

‘I like leaping’

Another dancer, Teddy Barzyk, has been taking ballet for four years at Cary’s International Ballet Academy.

“I like leaping,” said Teddy, who turns 9 Monday and was cast as a party boy.

This is the second year in “The Nutcracker” for Teddy, a third-grader at St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School in Cary. Asked about working with Zali, he hesitates. “You have to get it perfect for Zali,” he said.

Teddy’s father, Tim Barzyk, said he doesn’t get nervous watching Teddy perform.

“He looks so natural that we don’t get butterflies for him,” Barzyk said, adding, “Having him involved in something he’s so good at and that draws out that potential in him is inspiring.”

Jan Burkhard understands the excitement. Now a principal dancer at Carolina Ballet, Burkhard was introduced to the big stage at age 10 when she danced in the American Ballet’s production in New York City.

By her second year, she was cast as Marie, the name given to the Clara role in some stage versions of “The Nutcracker.”

“I remember trembling in an excited way. I remember that rush when the curtain goes up and you have thousands of people watching you.”

Burkhard, 27, will dance as the sugar plum fairy in this year’s show.

“There’s still that rush of excitement and nerves,” she said. “‘Nutcracker’ is nostalgic for me, because I stand there watching the children, and I hear the ballet master from my childhood.

“Zali was my prince when I was Marie, so we both get kind of teary-eyed,” said Burkhard, who praises Zali’s instruction.

“He was once that kid and he knows what works,” she said. “It takes a lot of patience and a lot of focus.”

The children come together with the professional dancers two weeks before opening night. It’s Zali’s job to make sure the transition is seamless.

‘So much fun’

Rachel is confident and sure of her part early on. Zali often turns to her to jog his memory on steps; when another Clara stumbles, he pulls Rachel up to demonstrate.

“I don’t think she’s ever had so much fun in her life,” her mother, Cathy Robinson, said.

Rachel is an only child, which Robinson said allows her the time to devote to a hectic dance schedule. She volunteers behind the scenes, managing props.

As rehearsals wind down, the children are fitted for their costumes and the excitement builds. Girls twirl about the wardrobe room in party dresses that have been worn by generations of dancers. All Rachel wants to do is get on stage.

“I definitely want to be a professional dancer,” she said. “I want to join the San Francisco Ballet or the Royal Ballet.

“My friends say they want to be a pediatrician or something. All I want to do is dance.”