As NYCB Co-founder George Balanchine once said, “Don’t spoil the magic,” and there’s no show in the Company’s repertory with quite as much “magic” as George Balanchine's The Nutcracker®—which means, of course, each performance offers all the more opportunities for the unexpected. From faulty timekeeping and off-kilter hats to fire alarms and trod-upon frocks, every performance has the potential for catastrophe, but it’s the skill, good humor, and commitment to the spectacle maintained by each and every NYCB dancer that keeps this wondrous holiday show “going on.” Here are a few of their recollections of just such disasters, (almost) always averted.
Associate Artistic Director Wendy Whelan: I can’t remember the year, but it was a rare Nutcracker season when I’d been paired up for the pas de deux with [former NYCB Principal Dancer] Damian Woetzel as my Cavalier. As dancers, we all knew that once the pas de deux began, it was time for the youngest viewers to start having meltdowns—tears and tantrums from the crowd at times becoming audible and distracting. One performance, though, was surprisingly different. Just as the pas de deux was getting started, a fire alarm in the front of the house went off. It blared on and on throughout the whole dance like a giant bull horn from the rafters, ringing out into the auditorium. Damian and I kept going—we were more determined than ever to keep the peace and spread harmony across the Land of the Sweets—no matter what was happening in real life. We’d trained our whole lives for this moment, to never give up and never, ever lose focus or stop dancing. For us this just seemed like another training hurdle to clear. And, we subconsciously knew that the stage manager would take charge and stop the show if the theater were going up in flames. At some point during the ballet’s finale the alarm stopped, and we went on, with the rest of the cast, to finish out the ballet, as if nothing had happened. It was one performance I will never forget.
Corps Member Laine Habony: On opening night a couple of years ago, I was dancing in the corps of Flowers. At the end of the Polichinelles’ dance, one of the little girl’s ballet slippers fell off. It was laying right near the wing where I was to run out. I was standing in the wing staring at it with [Corps Member] Andrew Scordato and he told me to pick it up. So when it was my time to go onstage I ran out, did my arabesque, looked down, picked up the shoe, ran to my spot and threw it off stage before posing. Immediately the audience erupted in applause and laughter at what I had just done. I still say to this day that that’ll be the most applause I’ll ever get on that stage!
Corps Member Andrew Scordato: My best Nutcracker blooper has to be when I was the "bed boy" in the Pennsylvania Ballet's production of The Nutcracker, which is also the Balanchine version. [The dancer performing the "bed boy" role hides beneath Marie's bed and is responsible for moving it around the stage, making it appear to magically glide as Marie is transported to the snow-covered Pine Forest.] In a performance, as I pushed the bed onto the stage for the magical moment where the Nutcracker doll grows to life-size, the bed skirt got stuck under one of the front wheels and completely ripped off, exposing me to the whole audience. To make matters worse, the first thing you do after your entrance is park in the bottom stage right corner for the whole battle scene, where I just had to huddle under the bed in full view of the audience for what felt like an eternity. And it didn't end there... When the scene changes into the snowy forest, with gentle snow falling and beautiful music swelling, there I was, trying desperately to push a bed with fabric caught in the wheel around the stage in stunted, jerky movements, finishing with a lame single bed spin before the Prince enters.
Director of Production Marquerite Mehler: The show when the Nutcracker was not placed onstage for its preset was terrifying... When the Act II boat missed its mark and just kept going.... Marie got sick during the party scene and we had to switch another dancer in during the violin solo/quick change—brunette for the party scene, redhead for the battle... Children’s shoes flying off onstage and into the pit... Mother Ginger dances onstage and as she waves at the audience, a Polichinelle tugs the Assistant Stage Manager’s arm and says, “I’m supposed to be out there"... We lost control of the lighting system as the tree started to grow and had to stop the show before we got to the snow scene... With 40 stagehands and a cast of 90, there is always something that can—and will—go wrong.
Corps Member Clara Miller: As an apprentice doing my first Nutcracker, I severely overestimated how much time I had to change my pointe shoes before the second act. I was sitting on the floor changing them when the Sugarplum Fairy finished her variation. I sprinted flat out into the dressing area and watched anxiously on the backstage TV as each group of dancers ran onstage to bow, knowing I was in the last group and not knowing if I’d make it. I didn’t tell the dresser fastening me into my costume that I was in a hurry because I didn’t want to make her nervous, but it was taking a while, so eventually I had to tell her how dire things were. She finished buttoning me and I sprinted flat out to the other side of the stage and didn’t stop running until I was onstage. I never left things that close again.
Corps Member Marika Anderson: One of my funniest Nutcracker bloopers actually happened in my first Nutcracker back in 2004. I was an apprentice at the time and it was my very first show performing with the Company. As you can imagine, I was very nervous and excited all at the same time. [Soloist] Daniel Applebaum, who was also an apprentice at the time, was my partner in the Party Scene. When the party came to an end and it was time for the guests to leave we were both so into our characters, and I was nervous for my quick change into a Snowflake, that we exited the wrong wing. All the guests are to leave in the second wing and we went out the first, which is actually outside of Marie’s house. I’m sure no one in the audience noticed but our ballet repertory director got a good laugh out of it. That was the first and only time either of us have made that mistake. Good memories.
Artistic Director Jonathan Stafford: When I was a student, I was dancing the role of Tea in our production at my ballet school and was in the box for our entrance. Two other students pushed the box on stage, stopped suddenly, and as the music started they started pushing me back offstage. Since I was safely in the box, I couldn’t see anything and had no idea if I should exit the box or not. All I knew was that the music had started and we were going the wrong direction. Apparently the box had caught the scenery on the way out and the two students had to reverse to unsnag the scenery and then continue on. Thankfully I didn’t have to cut much choreography and, as usual, the show went on!
Corps Member Gilbert Bolden III: Mother Ginger is arguably the most precarious part in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. The costume and stilts are so involved, then adding in eight little kids who can’t see under your dress is just a can of worms waiting to spill. Around 90% of the shows go off without a hitch, then another 9% have minor issues that aren’t visible to the audience's eye. But that 1% is where danger lives. I believe it was my second year doing Mother Ginger, probably our third or fourth week of performances, when I had the scariest moment of my entire Mother Ginger career! As the girls and I were entering the stage, I started to feel the dress tip to the right. I saw everyone’s face in the wings flash with terror and my gut reaction was to stop in place and wait until I felt safe again, not letting it show on my face of course. When I looked back at the footage I realized what had happened: one of the Polichinelles had stepped on my dress, causing it to tip and expose my stilts and the other children. Everyone, including myself, was safe in the end, but we might’ve given away the illusion of Mother Ginger to the people at that show.
Corps Member Andres Zuniga: I will never forget a particular moment that didn’t go quite as planned during our Nutcracker run in 2019. I was making my debut as the Toy Soldier in The Nutcracker after weeks of rehearsing and perfecting this quick but challenging variation. Five minutes before the show, my soldier doll makeup was on, my muscles were warm, and I was in my performance outfit. I hadn’t had the chance to rehearse in costume due to the very heavy schedule we have during the holidays, but I was sure it wouldn’t be an issue. Watching the doll dance that comes before mine from the wings, I firmly secured the iconic soldier hat to my head—or so I thought. Finally, my music started playing and I began to dance. The variation is very high energy, fast and tiring yet still enjoyable and fun. This particular dance ends with a triple pirouette and drop to the knee, right with the music. As I finished my pirouette, I felt my hat fly off my head! Thankfully, it is also held in place by an elastic band along the chin. The hat popped off, did one revolution around my head, and proceeded to land perfectly tilted at a 45° angle on my head, and on the beat of the music! I was pretty mortified about my wardrobe malfunction, but my peers assured me that it was nothing to worry about and that it was even an impressive feat I'd accomplished. Nonetheless, every show after that one, I made sure my hat was tightly secured to my head. Still, it made for a very memorable debut. A memory I’ll have forever.
Soloist Unity Phelan: A couple years ago, we were hanging out in our dressing room between shows mid-Nutcracker season and I said (out loud), “I can’t believe I haven’t fallen onstage yet in this run of Nutcracker!” Everyone immediately laughed, knowing full well that as soon as you say it out loud, it is bound to happen. In the evening show that day, I fell three times on stage. Luckily, I was not hurt and was able to stand up and brush myself off. Our repertory director came backstage afterwards and said, “Mr. B would have loved that you were going for it so much, but try staying on your two feet next time!”