Behind the Curtain | The Nutcracker

Nutcracker season, it’s the most wonderful time of the year at Grand Rapids Ballet. From swirling snowflakes to a full cast of beloved characters, our dancers share a glimpse behind the curtain expressing exactly what goes into preparing for the annual holiday favorite, The Nutcracker.

Rehearsals began in August, so as the rays shined brightly outside, Grand Rapids Ballet dancers got into the holiday spirit earlier than most for the production. To prepare to portray the iconic role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Company dancer Alexandra Meister-Upleger shared what she does to get ready. “I listen to a lot of holiday music. I get really excited to spread holiday cheer and magic of the holidays with everyone,” she said with a laugh.

Alexandra Meister-Upleger, photo by Ray Nard Imagemaker

For others, the process looks a bit different. “Getting into the mindset to portray Dream Clara, I don’t do a lot of prep work, character-wise, because there’s a special moment when the snow pas de deux begins, which is one of my favorite moments on stage,” said Company dancer Julia Turner.

Turner describes being turned away from the audience with her face in her hands. She then turns around just in time to see the Nutcracker Prince standing up at the end of the epic Battle Scene. “There’s a moment when Dream Clara looks into his eyes and sees a transformation from the Nutcracker doll into a prince,” she says. “He then offers his hand to dance together and the snow starts to fall. At that moment, everything transports you. I feel like I’m living in a dream and the ballet carries you from there.”

Company dancer Steven Houser, who also serves as Assistant Ballet Master, works with his fellow dancers and artistic staff to stage the production. This experience adds a unique perspective, encompassing many layers beyond the movements that are practiced in the studio.

“The Nutcracker is one of the few opportunities where so many art forms collide,” explained Houser. “This production is a gorgeous, visual-art work that Chris Van Allsburg and Val Caniparoli created with our beautiful dancing and the incredible Grand Rapids Symphony. The coalescing of all of the different forms of art together in a unified way creates a huge impact on the audience. Even the sets transition and move, so there’s a performance element to the scenery. All of these layered elements create this sense of magic that heightens one another and it’s really magical.”

Emily Reed and Steven Houser, photo by Damion Van Slyke

Julia Turner and Nathan Young, photo by Ray Nard Imagemaker

Bringing that magic to life, Meister-Upleger shared that portraying the Sugar Plum Fairy is a dream role that allows her to enact the epitome of femininity. “Val Caniparoli’s version of The Nutcracker, with the beautiful pas de deux, is very exciting,” she remarked. “There are lots of intricate steps and lifts and fouette turns, all with a big finish before Clara has to go home and back to sleep.”

For some, stepping into their role provides an opportunity to incorporate pieces of their personality into the character. Company dancer Nathan Young shares how he transforms into the Nutcracker Prince. “It’s me embodying the role, so it’s my identity that I insert into the character. It’s a part that I can bring some of myself into,” Young explained. “The Nutcracker Prince is the archetypal prince. He’s nice to everybody and similar to princes from history, he’s good in combat, he’s well known in the Land of the Sweets, he’s regal and kind, and well respected. It’s fun to step into that energy.”

Yuka Oba-Muschiana, who has been with Grand Rapids Ballet for over a decade is portraying three roles in this year’s Nutcracker, including The Sugar Plum Fairy, Dream Clara, and Dew Drop. “I’m grateful to focus on these three iconic roles,” she said. “In some ways, it’s like being the face of The Nutcracker. I feel like I have to make it really special, I want to make people feel something when they see me dance.”

Oba-Muschiana goes on to explain how this annual holiday favorite continues to captivate audiences year after year. “The storyline is such a great family-based story. You start with the party scene with all the little kids dancing on stage, getting presents with all the excitement for Christmas,” she described. “The mice are doing funny things at night when Clara is sleeping, then the magic happens and the dolls come to life. It’s a perfect ballet for families to come see. It’s a reminder of the magic you felt as a kid. Live performance, there’s no way to describe it. You have to experience it to feel it.”

From everyone at Grand Rapids Ballet, thank you for stepping behind the curtain with us. We wish you and yours a wonderful holiday season.

Yuka Oba-Muschiana and Josue Justiz, photo by Ray Nard Imagemaker

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