Have you ever wondered what goes on backstage during The Nutcracker?

The Christmas ballet is one of the most popular staged works of our time, thanks to its festive appeal and accessibility to all ages. The Tchaikovsky classic may be 126 years old, but it’s certainly not in need of a facelift (though, admittedly, it’s had a few!). And as Drosselmeyer’s Nutcracker, his Sugar Plum and their armies of rats and sugar mice continue to pour into commercial culture, from cookie cutters to sparkling tree baubles, Starbucks playlists to Disney’s silver screen, dancers on stages all around the world continue to delight as they waltz through wonderland.

Nutcrackers at Sachenhaus © David Karlin
Nutcrackers at Sachenhaus
© David Karlin

We’ve asked a few dancers and, as you might have already guessed, starting the New Year on the back of a long Nutcracker run is balletic survival of the fittest!

In numbers, this is some of what goes on in the wings, to deliver magic onstage: 

One: 

One hour is the average time a ballerina needs to prepare a pair of pointe shoes: sewing, darning, customising, breaking in, moulding the box… Pointe shoes are traditionally handmade (although some of the processes aren’t any more) and they soften quickly through rehearsals and shows (from the load, impact, heat and moisture), so dancers actually need to change pointe shoes more often than we can imagine. Some principals are thought to use one pair per act, corps dancers can use a pair over one, two or three shows, or swap through their shoes for different acts. Pointe shoe allowances vary, but one corps dancer told us she had ten pairs to work with over twenty something shows of Nutcracker. That’s around ten hours of prepping shoes during breaks…

 

Five: 

The average number of roles a dancer might rehearse and perform during a Nutcracker run. Party guests, large waltzes (Snow in Act 1 and Flowers in Act 2) as well as a myriad of character dances… one must be able to switch characters quickly to master Nutcracker. With injuries come role covers, and understudies sometimes need to jump in at the last minute. With complex ensemble choreographies, where each dancer has a specific position in relation to the rest of the cast on stage, switching places really keeps you – forgive the pun – on your toes. 

Twenty six:

Estimated amount of hours, per dancer, in the make up chair throughout December.

It’s estimated a dancer takes, on average, 45 minutes to get his/her stage make up on and off, per performance. Looking at a selection of the largest ballet companies across the United States and Canada, we’ve calculated an average of 35 performances of Nutcracker during the month of December, which equates to over 26 hours (per dancer) sorting our make-ups during the run. 

 

Thirty:

Estimated number of hours of rehearsals, for an average run, notwithstanding extra rehearsal time for cover roles. Rehearsals are always preceded by daily morning class, which, in companies, usually lasts between an hour and 90 minutes, and sometimes will be followed by a performance (of another ballet). Most dancers also cross train, and keep their bodies in tip top condition with varying activities. 

Forty

The number of performances of Nutcracker that the Boston Ballet and the New York City Ballet will each dance this December, both runs span over 30 days. That’s a lot of waltzing to Tchaikovsky!

Two hundred

Weight in pounds of paper snow used on stage during San Francisco Ballet’s Waltz of the Snowflakes. Now, in Helgi Tomasson’s version of Nutcracker, the Waltz of the Snowflakes is a real blizzard, so it’s unlikely so much falls on every Nutcracker stage across the globe, but it nonetheless requires extra attention and effort from the dancers gliding away on the stage. 

 

Two Hundred and Fifty +: 

Now this one is nearly impossible to accurately record, because there are so many different choreographies of Nutcracker, and so many varying circumstances, but – largely estimated – 250+ might be the number of times a male dancer lifts a female dancer on stage during a run of Nutcracker (this is doing corps and ensemble choreographies, notwithstanding the grand pas). Male dancers are extremely fit as it is, but in order to protect their bodies and keep themselves going, a majority of dancers make the time for extra strengthening work, at the start of the season, so as to avoid injury. 

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