Behind the Scenes of “The Nutcracker”

What does it take to prepare for a performance of the holiday favorite? A few intense weeks of rehearsal—and some costume exchanges with Russia.

Under the watchful eyes of the large nutcracker poised at the front of the studio, Jorge Laico, the artistic director of Wilmington Ballet Academy of the Dance, cues his dancers. “Five, six, seven, eight.” Then Tchaikovsky’s score for the famous party scene of “The Nutcracker” begins. Girls and boys rush to the middle of the rehearsal room to find their partners.

“Freeze,” Laico yells. He tells them to listen to the violins, to add life to their moves. When done, he tells them to do it again—from the top.

It is a Thursday night in October, and this is one of many rehearsals the Wilmington Ballet and studios across the state hold to prepare for their “Nutcracker” shows in December. The show has long been a holiday favorite. Wilmington Ballet’s version is 50 this year, says Laico.  

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Laico says that rehearsals for “The Nutcracker” generally begin in September, leaving a mere 10 weeks to prepare.

“Just imagine I put you in front of 4,000 people, but you only practice 10 hours,” says Laico.

It likely would not go well.

Wilmington Ballet dancer Bella Pabian was a party girl in the first act and one of the Chinese-umbrella dance characters last year. This year, she is the understudy for Clara, the lead role, so she attends three to four practices a week, including a studio rehearsal on Saturdays.

“The hardest part is getting every single kid—it varies from ages seven to 14—trying to get everyone to focus in a small studio,” says Pabian.

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Preparation of costumes begins when the previous season’s production closes, says Joanne Epstein, the wardrobe manager of First State Ballet Theatre, a professional ballet company in Wilmington that performs “The Nutcracker” at The Playhouse on Rodney Square.  Epstein and her team of volunteers then clean, count and repair the costumes.

In September and November, the student and professional company are fitted to costumes that are ordered from Russia or made in house. Sometimes, says Epstein, the bodice of a tutu needs to be adjusted to fit the dancer.

“The costumes for any ballet company take a beating because they are dancing in them,” says Epstein. “It would be much easier if they were just standing in them, but they do have to actually work in them.”

Compared to “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” is a longer show to prepare for than most ballets because First State uses students and a professional company, says Epstein.

At the same time, Laico, whose version uses a live orchestra and chorus, says he always needs more time to create the holiday show.

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“I’m always short on time, so I have to work efficiently,” says Laico. “And there’s no time to play around.”

See the Wilmington Ballet‘s performances Dec. 3–4,  or the First State Ballet Theatre‘s performances Dec. 17–18.

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