Credit: Tierna Unruh-Enos


In the world of ballet, the upcoming holiday season means one thing: The Nutcracker.

Theater stages across the country will soon be filled with ballet dancers embodying soldiers, mice, twirling snowflakes, leaping candy canes and lots and lots of sugar plum fairies. Once again, the New Mexico Ballet Company (NMBC) is working hard to prepare for their first performance of The Nutcracker ballet on Thanksgiving weekend at the University of New Mexico’s Popejoy Hall.

The Nutcracker is a fairytale ballet in two acts and centers around a young girl’s Christmas Eve celebration and her awakening into romance. Anna Bridge, the artistic director for NMBC tells The Paper. that over 120 members and students of the ballet company are preparing for the upcoming performances.

“It’s all hands on deck. It’s just a constant process until we open for that first show,” Bridge says. “There’s over 100 hours of rehearsal time alone that goes into putting on a production of this size.”

All Hands on Deck for Nutcracker Rehearsals

Rehearsals for The Nutcracker at NMBC are swirls of tutus and the clipping sound of ballerina pointe toe shoes. Pointe shoes are specially made shoes worn by ballet performers to allow them to dance on the tips of their toes. Fashions come and go, but the iconic tutu has endured for several hundred years as a symbol of the grace of ballet. The fine mesh-like fabric from which tutus are made projects horizontally from the waist and hip. The short, stiff, immobile skirt highlights the energetic and graceful movements of the dancers. Practicing in tutus during rehearsals helps the dancers compensate for the skirt as they dance.

“We have a couple costumers who created some new costumes for us this year who also work on embellishing,” says Bridge. “We have an awesome team of parent volunteers and seamstresses who do a lot of the little upkeep work needed on the costumes from year to year. We outsource our tutus to various companies.”

Founded in 1972, NMBC was initially a professional dance company. Over the past several years though, they have been building a dance school for kids and adults alike.

“The classes are either by age or level and include ballet points, tap jazz, lyrical, modern hip-hop, improvisation, and dancer wellness courses,” Bridge explains.  “We have student apprentices who perform in roles with the company ballet and we also have a competition team called Albuquerque Dance Collaborative that competes at local and national competitions.

Performances such as The Nutcracker, Bridge says, help fund the year-round programs. 

“A big chunk of our funding, like any ballet company in the U.S., comes from the ticket sales of The Nutcracker,” Bridge explains. “It’s the big cash cow that keeps us moving through the rest of the season. Other funding comes through tuition from our dance school and we also rely partially on funding from grants and donors.”

The Nutcracker Story

Walt Disney’s 1940s animated film Fantasia put the spotlight on the 1892 Russian Nutcracker ballet and the music of Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. Prior to this, the ballet had not been performed live in its entirety in the U.S., and was barely seen outside of Russia. The San Francisco Ballet staged the U.S. premiere of The Nutcracker four years after Fantasia’s release and put the ballet on a fast track to becoming a holiday staple in the U.S.

Depending upon where you live in the world, Bridge says, the classic ballet story can vary depending on the local customs and culture.

“Clara, a young girl, sneaks out and finds the nutcracker soldier doll under the Christmas tree, falls asleep and that’s when this dream kind of fantasy starts to happen,” Bridge says. “We have the Rat King and he has an army of rats and little mice that come to terrify Clara until the Nutcracker Prince appears. We go through a battle scene with the Nutcracker and his soldiers versus the Rat King and his army of rats and mice. The Rat King prevails over the Nutcracker and then Clara is the one who kind of takes the Rat King out. Clara’s godfather uses magic to bring the Nutcracker back to life and then that takes us into the snow scene and into the land of sweets.” 

“Clara goes back to sleep holding her nutcracker again and you’re left wondering, ‘Was it all a dream? Was it real?’” she says. “I like leaving the audience with that.”

The ballet finishes with the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier dancing their famous grande pas de deux, a dance in which a male and a female dancer express their characters’ love through ballet steps. These roles at Popejoy will be performed by the current stars of the San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet. The NMBC will also be joined by the New Mexico Philharmonic playing Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite.

“It has been a company tradition for many years through generous donors to bring in these guest artists for our Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier,” Bridge says. “It’s really wonderfully inspiring for our students and our younger dancers to see dancers from around the country.” 

Bridge says after all the rehearsals there are nothing quite like being onstage in front of a theater full of people.

“The energy you give to the audience is the energy that they give back to you tenfold,” Bridge explains. “There’s something really magical and special about seeing their reactions, hearing their reactions, hearing their applause. That sharing of energy and the enjoyment and support for the arts is just a really, really wonderful thing to work towards.”

“At rehearsals I’m there floating around and I’m taking notes and I’m directing other technical things, but at that point on stage, the performance they’ve all worked towards so hard in the studio is theirs and it’s their energy and their passion for dancing and performing that really brings it alive.” 

Tickets can be purchased at NMBC’s website.

Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado, and other publications. She has taught and  practiced alternative healing methods for over thirty-five years.