At ‘The Nutcracker’ ballet, magic begins behind the scenes

December 6, 2018 GMT

New London — Every year for the last two decades, the Eastern Connecticut Ballet of East Lyme has put on its magical production of “The Nutcracker” at the Garde Arts Center. To the audience, the annual production — with its adorable girls in mice and angel costumes, as well as its visiting professional ballerinas from New York City and Miami — is a work of perfection.

Backstage, however, in the days leading up to showtime, the scene is one of controlled chaos. On a recent weeknight, the school, with its 100-plus dancers, put on its first dress rehearsal.

Between party scenes and mouse fights on stage, groups of young ballerinas ran up and down narrow backstage stairs and in-between cramped dressing rooms, changing in and out of costumes, with seconds to spare.

“My feet hurt,” one sailor girl said.

“My pants fell down,” said another, quickly pulling off her red sailor scarf.

“We need to practice that dance again, it was awful,” said another one, critiquing the just-rehearsed performance.

“Especially when your pants are falling down!” the second girl added.

Meanwhile, another girl smudged lipstick on her white costume. A parent chaperone overseeing the madness wiped lipstick off the teeth of another, taking armfuls of mice costumes with a free arm. A different chaperone helped pin a fake bun in one girl’s hair before buttoning the dress of another.

Adding drama to the moment, Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes” played over a stereo system all while plastic costume covers flew off overhead shelves and dancers tore out of their white sailor shirts. Just a few feet over in the tight hallway, lines of girls dressed as angels got last-minute costume checks by their chaperone as a file of China babies scurried back into their dressing room to play patty cake and card games.

“Alright girls, where are my angels? I need you all to listen to me. Mice need to go downstairs right now,” said Melissa Turtoro, the parent chaperone overseeing backstage logistics. She’s the one making sure disaster doesn’t happen this year. And she’s the one who kept several groups of dancers, running between stage and dressing room, moving like clockwork.

“It’s making sure that everything is going as planned,” she said, showing off a backstage bulletin board covered in checklists and schedules dictating which group of dancers needs to be where and when. “So far, it’s going well. They are serious about making this come together. But, as you can imagine, it can get quite crazy. The first dress rehearsal is always a little crazy.”

And even though Turtoro kept the behind-the-scenes big picture in check, she is just one of more than a dozen faithfully dedicated parents who volunteer every year to help see the success of “The Nutcracker” through.

“There is something magical about being a part of the backstage madness of ‘The Nutcracker,’” said chaperone Nina Papathanasopoulou of New London, whose two daughters are performing in this year’s show. This is her third year volunteering to help.

“It’s the energy of it all. Not only do the children love it, but I love it. It’s just the excitement of being on stage, and being a part of a larger production here at the Garde,” she said, while keeping a close eye on the 21 girls assigned to her purview.

“My role is to keep them calm and keep them from panicking,” Papathanasopoulou said. “But this is something they will talk about forever. It’s an experience where they are both nervous and excited. They are really living in the moment, and that’s very special for them.”

A 12-month commitment

This year, more than 100 children are performing in ECB’s annual production — a commitment that requires twice weekly rehearsals every Friday and Saturday from the start of September through the first week of December.

And in the weeks leading up to the show, schedules get even more hectic, as Sunday rehearsals are added in. Of course, dancers also must attend weekly ballet classes aside from their “Nutcracker” commitments.

Then, there is tech week, requiring dancers to be at the Garde from 4 to 9 p.m. every night in the week leading up to the final shows.

“It’s a huge commitment on the part of these families. They are giving up a lot in order to participate and we are very clear about that going in,” said Lise Reardon, president of the school. “For instance, if you have a family vacation that you’ve already planned, and it crosses with rehearsals in the three months leading up to the show, you might want to wait off on being in ‘The Nutcracker’ until next year.”

“Let’s just say you don’t want to plan your birthday party on the day of rehearsals,” Reardon added.

From the administrative side of things, Reardon said, putting on “The Nutcracker” is a commitment that lasts 12 months a year.

“As soon as the production is over, we go into post mortem,” Reardon says. “We immediately start analyzing what we could have done better. We look how to tweak the choreography to make it better, how to tweak the costumes, looking at new designs. We are always improving.”

At the East Lyme school in the months leading up to December, Reardon and her artistic director, former New York City Ballet dancer Gloria Govrin, as well as three other instructors, teach the dancers the steps to “The Nutcracker.”

As each group learns their steps, instructors then start combining groups to form scenes and then acts, until a rough sketch of the production takes shape. Once that’s in order, tech week commences.

At the Garde earlier this week, rehearsals focused on spacing out those dances on stage, especially as new stage backdrops have been implemented this year — adding another layer of difficulty to the usual madness. Aside from that, stage directors, seamstresses and stagehands are busily completing their backstage tasks, as well.

“This is really the magic of live theater,” Reardon said. “Of course, mishaps are going to happen. Someone might fall on stage. They’ll only have minutes to switch into new costumes. They have to learn how to cope with things like that and that’s all a part of the experience.”

“There is such a palpable excitement to putting on this production every year,” Reardon continued. “All of it is worth it because they are learning to be creative. They are passionate, dedicated. They are putting all these wonderful qualities into one production. And they feel important. They know they are all part of this big wonderful ballet and that is amazing.”