Every fall, dancers embark on a journey that they’ve been on time and time again: the story of the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker, an epic ballet in two parts, is an elaborate production filled with intricate detail — both in costume and emotions — so it’s no wonder that it is one of the most performed ballets in the world. But why does it never get old?
According to Ballet Arizona choreographer of 12 years, Ib Andersen, it’s not so much about the dancing as it is about the music, composer Tchaikovsky’s score.
“It has an amazing score — just absolutely gorgeous music,” Andersen says. “Without that, it would be very hard to do the show every year. It keeps it plausible.”
Dancer Joseph Cavanaugh, one of few veterans of the company who has been with Ballet Arizona since 2000, agrees.
“When people think of the holidays, they think of the music of the Nutcracker,” Cavanaugh says. “To hear it live is really beautiful, and the ballet itself is magical because it carries you through so many different emotions. It starts with a party, and then Clara has a dream that takes you to a scary place of rats and small soldiers; adults really enjoy the child’s imagination that comes to life. Not to mention that the snow on stage takes you to a different world.”
What’s it like dancing with the snow? According to Cavanaugh, Dancers are constantly slipping and falling throughout rehearsals, and sometimes they’ll even find snow in their clothing up to a year later.
The production itself is also new. While the dancing is the same, “new life was given to it with newer costumes and aesthetics,” Cavanaugh says. “We also have better dancers now than 10 years ago.”
In the world of ballet, your career ends in your 30’s, and if you’re lucky, when you’re 40. Your career usually starts, however, around seven years of age. Andersen, a Denmark native, started attending a theater school at that age.
In fact, Andersen was one of two dancers left in the dance program when he graduated at the age of 16, due to the annual end-of-year auditions and exam. The class originally began with 60 people.
“There’s nothing remotely equivalent to that in America,” Andersen says. State-sponsored theater schools with more than 1,000 employees are very popular in Europe and remain so today.
For Cavanaugh, his transition into the dance world was a little different. He knew he wanted to dance when he saw MC Hammer perform, so he took a hip-hop and jazz class.
“I thought ballet was a ballerina dancing in a jewelry box,” he adds. “But the connection my mind and body made was so fascinating to me.” He was 16 when he began, and the rest is history.
While Cavanaugh is unusual in the fact that he started late, for the dancing world at least (Andersen says most dancers go professional at 18), Cavanaugh explains that the moves he learns are much like learning to ride a bike — you can stay away from the dance for a few years but once you start dancing again, you will remember how to move the body.
“You know that saying about 10 years or 10,000 hours?” Cavanaugh says. “It’s true. It takes that long to finally feel like you understand a little of what you’re doing, and I do believe it takes that to become better.”
Although Arizona may not be a dance mecca, Cavanaugh stayed with Ballet Arizona to work with Andersen.
“He truly is an artistic director that is interested in all aspects of the company,” Cavanaugh says. “Details matter to him and that matters to me. He taught me that more communication happens in the details, the way you arch your feet can make all the difference.”
Andersen himself explains that he is a teacher of sorts for his dancers. While he himself has not taken stage in 22 years, he gives his talent to the dancers he directs. “I tell them what to do, what not to do,” he says.
Andersen’s love for the ballet does not go unnoticed. “Even if it is the same ballet, the ballet is like music; you can hear or see it more than once,” Andersen says. “The more you see it, the more you appreciate it. Or the more you hate it,” he laughs.
The Nutcracker runs from December 9th to December 24th. Tickets start at $17. For more information on the ballet and ticketing, visit Ballet Arizona’s website.