From the audience, it looked magical. The girls curtsied and line-danced in their party dresses. Mysterious Godfather Drosselmeyer presented a beaming Clara with a special gift: a nutcracker, promptly stolen by her impish little brother, Fritz. The Christmas tree grew three times taller, the nutcracker came to life, Clara vanquished the sneering rat king with the strike of a shoe — and then it was off to the twinkling land of snow queens and sugarplum fairies with her prince.
What the audience didn’t know was that backstage, one soldier was missing and the mice were tripping over their tails. A clown’s zipper was broken, a wad of hot-pink Silly Putty had just come dangerously close to the costumes, and the littlest girl in the Chinese dance needed to go to the bathroom. Or that in the final rehearsals, a mouse tripped over scenery and sent it crashing. And the boy playing Benjamin Franklin got a nosebleed.
This year, 460 kids are dancing in the Washington Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” possibly the most in the country. In the 11 years since Artistic Director Septime Webre transformed the classic tale into a Washington-centric ballet set in Georgetown, about 110 children are backstage any given night during the 34-show run at THEARC and Warner theaters. And as you’d pretty much expect from a huge group of hammy, stage-ready kids wired up with showbiz adrenaline, there is only so much that grown-ups can do to keep them from running amok. It’s like “Lord of the Flies” but with tulle.
There is one person tasked with making sure calamity doesn’t happen. Donna Glover, the ballet’s children coordinator, is the one who makes sure every kid gets into costume and onto the stage. She is their shepherd. She is their surrogate mom. She is order amid chaos. And now that the season is nearly over, she is very, very tired.
Christmas comes to the Washington Ballet the first weekend in October, and this year, it started with a gift, if you could call it that. It wasn’t really a bribe that one mother presented to Glover at the “Nutcracker” auditions — or, at least, “you won’t hear me say that,” Glover said.
“You do so much work for the kids, so much,” said the mother, handing Glover an expensive-looking bouquet, her daughter’s hair adorned with a flower to match.
Glover was standing amid hair-sprayed mayhem. More than 200 children and their parents were filling the hallways of the ballet’s school in Cathedral Heights , making the place feel, as she said, “like a Japanese subway station.”
“Right now, they’re just locusts descending,” said facilities manager Chad Alexander. He motioned to a seat. “Take it while you can.”
“I have to remember to balance the caffeine with water,” Glover said. She took a swig while, in the hallway, moms chatted about switching from wine to vodka tonics. Many were exceptionally turned out for a Sunday afternoon: heels, blowouts, Cartier bracelets, Yves Saint Laurent bags and flawless red lipstick. There were murmurings about elite carpools.
Only children in the Washington School of Ballet are permitted to audition, and this year, 520 did. The auditions spanned 11 hours, and for prospective dancers, attendance that day — and for all future “Nutcracker” events — was mandatory. This hard-and-fast rule has the inadvertent effect of making Glover temporarily one of the most powerful people in Washington. Foreign diplomats bend their schedules to accommodate hers. One ambassador — Glover won’t say who — canceled a family trip so his daughter could make it to the audition. “No, we can’t see her on another day,” Glover remembers telling the ambassador.
He wasn’t the only one. “I flew back from South Africa to make sure I was here for this,” said Paula Lytle, who works at the World Bank and whose son, Paul, was cast in the party scene.
The youngest dancers are 6, and the oldest are high-schoolers and recent graduates enrolled in the ballet’s Professional Training Program. They all had numbers pinned on their color-coded leotards: light blue for the youngest, cobalt for level one, black for levels two and up, and gray leggings for the boys. The youngest lined up to march into the studio first. “Be sure to smile,” said a dad on the stairs as his daughter brushed him away. No. 442 began to sob.
There’s a Nutcracker hierarchy that corresponds to role, age and gender. At the top, of course, is Clara, the star. The role typically goes to several petite teenagers; like nearly every children’s role, it is shared among four to six students in rotating casts. The next most-desired role for any age is any spot in the opening party scene because it has the fanciest dresses. Older girls might be cast as “frontier girls” or butterflies, smaller girls might be soldiers, mice or clowns, and the littlest are likely to be mushrooms or bumblebees. Coveted male roles are Fritz or the prince.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen butterflies look more terrified than I see you are,” Webre said to one group, as he walked around making notes throughout the rounds of auditions.
“Too tall for clown,” he wrote for one girl. “NO,” he wrote for another.
Most of the children received a role, but 60 were cut. Glover braced the parents for that in a meeting.
“The Washington School of Ballet provides excellent parenting opportunities,” she told them: managing disappointment, valuing a commitment — children are required to attend all rehearsals, even if it means canceling their own birthday parties — supporting a team, overcoming fears.
In rehearsal, the latter was a lesson for Roya Nock, 8. Her character, a scout, is one of the first soldiers to confront the rats, played by company members in furry masks with red eyes and sharp teeth. And when she did, the poor girl was terrified. She spent the rest of the rehearsal sobbing, while the artistic team conferred about whether the child would need to be replaced. The dancers took off their masks to show her people were underneath, but she was still too frightened.
“Finally at the end of an hour-and-a-half rehearsal, she went to the storage box where the rat heads were to see what they were made of,” Webre said. It was enough to convince her. “She said to me, ‘Mr. Webre, I want to be part of the show.’ ”
In fact, the masks appear to be a perpetual source of drama. One year, a certain mother decided she wanted to be able to see her child’s face during the performance, though the girl had been cast as a mouse. She started a petition among the parents to have Webre change the costumes — the very expensive costumes — and when that was laughed off, she resorted to subtler tactics, Glover said.
“Whenever she was with the group she was instilling in [the children] a hyperdrama of, ‘Okay, isn’t it hot in there? Can you see in there? You can’t see, can you? How do you feel? Don’t you feel afraid?’ ” Glover said. “Eventually I had to take her aside and tell her quite emphatically that she was not allowed to speak to the students anymore, and if she didn’t pull it together, that she had to leave the building and she couldn’t come back.”
This year, the kids who wore headgear — the mice, a couple of woodland creatures and some mushrooms — adjusted tentatively during their first costumed rehearsal.
“How do you breathe in these?” said one mushroom.
“Are you breathing right now?” asked wardrobe assistant Rebekah Nettekoven Tello.
“I can’t swallow,” said another mushroom.
“It’s part of being a mushroom,” said Nettekoven Tello. “A mushroom’s life is difficult, living in the woods.”
The masked mice also wear fat suits, and it’s hard for them to find their new center of gravity.
“It’s hot,” said one mouse.
“It feels weird,” said another.
“It smells bad, like rotting candy,” said a third.
“You have to suffer to be a star,” said wardrobe supervisor Monica Leland, who cleans the costumes after every use.
And they do feel like stars, especially when they get to rehearse with the company members, whom they idolize. Sometimes, they ask them for their autographs.
“I had a [child] dancer give me a picture of me that she drew,” said dancer Kateryna Derechyna.
The entire ballet never comes together in full until the first technical rehearsal, which is the day before opening night at Anacostia’s THEARC Theater. “I do feel like Cecil B. DeMille when I’m putting together the whole thing, with a bullhorn in one hand and a cattle prod in the other to keep everyone on track,” Webre said.
This all began 11 years ago, when Webre was inspired to retool the European “Nutcracker” into one set in Washington and imbued with U.S. history. That’s why the dolls are Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Franklin, and the Arabian dance is performed by Anacostia Native Americans.
When he considered how many children were in the school, “a guiding principle I used was inclusion,” Webre said. He thinks children make the performance more meaningful for the inter-generational audience.
Clearly, he never took to mind the old showbiz adage often attributed to W.C. Fields: Never work with children or animals. This show has a lot of children. More than ballets in other cities: The San Francisco Ballet casts 175 children, with about 75 appearing in each show. The New York City Ballet has 130 children, 63 onstage every night. The Joffrey Ballet has 118 overall.
“I don’t know if we’re the record holder, but I suspect we are,” Webre said.
The large number of children “makes it more difficult, but they make it more satisfying and inspiring,” he said. They also give him gray hair.
“I always have a good stiff drink after every rehearsal,” Webre said.
Every performance is a controlled explosion. It’s not a question of if something will go wrong, but rather, what each day’s miniature crisis will be and how to get ahead of it. Glover’s biggest nemeses are traffic and stomach flu. When children are late, she assembles a pit crew to wait in the street by the theater to whisk the child out of the car as soon as the parent pulls up, doing their makeup and getting them into costume while they walk. Sometimes she gets them onstage halfway through their part.
“She saves the day,” Webre said. “Every day, someone’s got the flu and strep throat, and their father is coming home from Iraq that day, and suddenly there’s a head lice outbreak. She’s gotta be a mom to 500 people, but also the four-star general that ensures the logistics happen.”
He added: “It takes every bit of force of my personality to keep the trains running, and every shred of Donna’s sanity.”
No child has yet bailed on a performance due to stage fright — “not even when they were about to be violently ill,” Glover said. The adrenaline keeps them from puking onstage. It’s when they come offstage that they head straight for the parent volunteer with a bag in her hands.
As far as backstage dramas go, the most common ones are prop or wardrobe malfunctions: improperly fastened skirts that fall down or, in the case of one mortified Clara, are tucked into her bloomers. Then there are the frequent rescues of kids caught in the scenery, made of a netting that can trap them like flies in a spiderweb if they aren’t careful.
“Invariably a little girl will get her halo caught in the webbing and will be stuck there, like a mouse stuck in a mousetrap considering whether or not they should chew their paw off,” Webre said.
But those are nothing compared to the big screw-ups, which have become the stuff of “Nutcracker” legend. Like the year the mice became lemmings.
“One of the mice missed her cue as she was coming offstage, and instead of going backstage she went front and she fell down a two-foot drop,” Glover said. “They’re in a padded suit with a bicycle helmet, so she just kind of bounced a little. But when she went, all the others followed, just like lemmings off a cliff. Everybody in the audience was like, ‘Ohh, interesting choreography.’ ”
And that’s nothing compared to the year a pipe broke on 13th Street, sending sewage bubbling back up the drains in the Warner Theatre’s dressing rooms an hour before the show. “We’re still trying to get them ready, they’re squealing, and it stinks,” Glover said. She quickly set up another dressing room in the atrium, but by the time the show was over, every dressing room was covered in three inches of sludge — and the children’s belongings were still in the rooms.
“Mr. Webre decided this was all very exciting,” said Glover. “He strapped two trash bags on his feet and waded through.”
“I double-bagged both legs like thigh-high Patti LaBelle boots,” Webre said.
They managed to get the kids dressed, though not necessarily in the clothes they arrived in. The costumes remained sewage-free. The show had gone on. And most important, “the audience never knew,” Glover said. Well, unless they had very good noses.
But the greatest piece of Nutcracker lore is passed down among tiny Nutcracker ballerinas as if it were an anthropological creation myth. It’s the story of the “Nutty Nutcracker.”
What happened was this: There was a snowstorm big enough to keep everyone off the roads but not big enough to shut down public transit. The ballet found itself with only 35 people in the audience, all parents of students. So Webre told his company members they could do whatever they wanted onstage.
That’s how the party scene found itself with the tomcat, a character that appears in Act 2, rubbing up against their legs, pretending to be the family cat. The sugarplum queen decided in the middle of her solo that she was too tired to dance anymore, so she waved her fellow dancers onto the stage to take over. The Anacostia dance — a provocative pas de deux performed by a shirtless Native American character — had the addition of a 9-year-old boy with his stomach painted to look like he had six-pack abs, competing for the affection of the female dancer. During the cardinal scene, the “frontier guy” showed up with one of the soldiers’ rifles, chasing the birds around. In the snow scene, the butlers from the party scene appeared with brooms (Webre remembers it as a snowblower), busily sweeping away the snow as the ballerinas danced. The kids loved it. They want to do it again every year.
“The Nutty Nutcracker, I always tell kids now, is an urban myth,” Glover said. “I say, ‘Look, if you’ve just paid $130 to come see this production and nobody told you it was going to be a Nutty Nutcracker, would you feel like you got your money’s worth?’”
Backstage, then, is where things get a little nutty. At the final dress rehearsal at THEARC — a performance, essentially, because an audience was present — Glover made her rounds as the soldiers and clowns got a layer of white stage makeup caked onto their faces, in a dressing room where the floor was sprinkled with pink backpacks and Goldfish crackers. She was fighting off what she calls her “annual Nutcracker cold.”
“Don’t jump around — just go out there and stand calmly,” Glover said to a girl in a rabbit suit. “Lydia, do you have something in your mouth?” The girl spat out her gum.
“Mice, when we go down the stairs, tails and rails,” said dresser Vickie Rankin. “Tail in your left hand, hold the rail in your right.”
Glover tiptoed with the mice behind the stage’s backdrop, ushering them into place with a pat on their fur: “You’re so cute.” One of them sneezed inside her mask.
Glover couldn’t linger to watch their entrance — she had to go give the soldiers their weapons. One of them was Nock, the rat-frightened girl. As the scout, her character was the bravest soldier, scoping out the battlefield for the troops; now that she had conquered her fear, she could fully inhabit the role.
“Girls, how did it go?” Glover asked.
“Awesome,” said Nock. “But I couldn’t see the audience. And my strap got caught in a cherry blossom.”
The next day, at the first official performance, one of their ranks was MIA. Her mom had misread the call time and was speeding over in the final minutes before the show started.
Glover rallied the troops. “If she makes it, we’re going to get her onstage. You might have already made your entrance,” she said to the soldiers. But if she didn’t make it, “close in the gap.” She handed them their guns.
A few feet away, parent volunteer Jennifer Park was waiting with a sponge full of white makeup. The costume had been laid out for a quick change — dressers can get a kid into costume in 20 seconds.
Onstage, mice scurried from behind the clock, and Clara awoke to find a Christmas tree three times taller. The dolls came to life. The rats bared their teeth. A few minutes later, with no soldier in sight, the pop of a cannon rang out — it was too late.
But the audience couldn’t tell. The soldiers marched in formation and Clara, played that afternoon by 16-year-old Brianna Sosa, hurled her shoe. No one tripped or threw up. The sugarplum fairy shimmered. Somewhere in the audience, an awestruck child decided to become a dancer when they grew up. And as the final performers took the stage, Glover hummed the famous Tchaikovsky score contentedly. She would do it all over again in two hours, with another 110 kids. And then again 33 more times this month.
When “The Nutcracker” is over, Glover often warns parents, their kids will get the blues. They get hooked on the rush of performing for a live audience, and once the holidays are over, they have to reacclimate to ordinary life, where they don’t wear sparkly costumes or get standing ovations.
“This is the closest thing to living a real fairy tale,” said Lisa Campbell, whose daughter, Chloe, 14, is a Clara. “Septime makes them feel like rock stars.”
There is no such slump for Glover.
“Everyone always asks me if I’m going to go somewhere,” said Glover, but the thought of packing a bag, of organizing a trip, of planning a single thing after three months of nonstop planning — it’s just too much.
“I go to the island of my sofa, in front of the fire with an excellent book and a bottle of wine,” she said. “For 48 hours, I do not get off that sofa.”
Maura Judkis is a Post staff writer. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit washingtonpost.
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