“Wheeeeeeeee!,” he happily yelled as we drove around a curve in the road. My two-year old son, James is locked and loaded in his carseat talking a mile a minute, mostly gibberish. “Mama that was FUN!” he yelled. His unexpected excitement pulled me out of my busy mind and I laughed out loud. “You’re right, bud,” I said with a smile as I looked back at him. “Driving around a curve is fun!”
One of the things I treasure most about being a mom is rediscovering life through my son’s lens. The routine is more remarkable, and the everyday feels more like an adventure. He finds joy in the places that we now take for granted.
I was still thinking about that sweet moment later that night as I headed to The Stevens Center for the campus preview night of The Nutcracker. The Nutcracker, now in its 50th year in Winston-Salem is presented by the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (UNCSA) and opens to the public on Friday, December 9th. This year’s production includes ten performances and runs through December 19th. It is one of the most celebrated traditions in town.
My friend Marissa, who you might remember meeting here, greets me backstage with a hug. Marissa is the Wardrobe Supervisor for The Costume Shop at UNCSA and she has graciously invited me backstage for a peek before the show.
“So, what do you want to see? She asks. “Everything!,” I say thinking like James.
Watching The Nutcracker at Christmastime through the years has always felt like magic. The lights, the jewels, the sparkles, the vibrancy, the snow – all of the beautiful details that take you away from the everyday seem to just flow together and fill the stage effortlessly. But backstage that magic is attributed to hours upon hours of carefully planned logistics that are managed from beginning to end.
More than 100 students dance in each performance of The Nutcracker and 195 costumes are used in the production. Some of the students will dance up to six different parts in a run. Marissa introduces me to a few students who are working wardrobe for the night and then walks me through her organizational process. We start with cloth cubbies filled with shoes and accessories for each character, and then into the costume room filled with racks upon racks of meticulously maintained garments that are shared between performers for each production. It took 10,000 hours and over 2.5 years to construct all of the original costumes.
She explains a bit more of how she works. “We have forty-one women dancing as snowflakes this production but we only have eighteen costumes. So it’s a matter of logistics to fit those forty-one women, with their forty-one different body shapes and sizes, into these eighteen costumes. That’s the constant challenge but it makes it exciting.”
We walk over to the closet of character heads, each built on bicycle helmets with interchangeable padding to fit different performers. The teeth are made out of fake fingernails and the eyes are sunglass lenses. The fur is made from yards upon yards of tulle that has been gathered and carefully stitched together in rows.
We walk through the wigs and the mustaches and the makeup, all maintained and applied by students that are majoring in wig and makeup design.
Production & Design
Beneath the orchestra pit, we pass handpainted props patiently waiting for their big moments and we head up to the stage. I look up at the backdrops that will later set the dreamy scenes. All of construction and painting of the original scenery and props was done by students, faculty, staff and alumni of the School of Design & Production and took 18,000 hours to complete. A lively group from production dressed in black walks by on their way up to the stage. Sixty individuals make up the production staff and technical crew.
Nearby Mother Ginger’s costume is hoisted high above to make space; the character stands 13 ½ feet tall, from the top of her hat to the bottom of her dress when she takes the stage.
The Young Talent
Onstage, some of the evening’s leads are working in a bit more rehearsal time before getting dressed. You could feel their commitment; complacency has no place here. “These kids are so focused,” Marissa chimes in. “This is everything for them.” They are filled with hope and excitement. I am reminded that the magic of The Nutcracker extends beyond the stage. More than 3,500 students have danced in The Nutcracker in the past 50 years.
Each year, guest artists (often alumni) join the cast for select shows. This year features alumna Megan LeCrone (New York City Ballet soloist) as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Martin Harvey (London Royal Ballet) as the Cavalier Prince for two evening performances on Wednesday, December 14th and Thursday, December 15th. These guest performances, while captivating and inspiring, are also a reminder that some of the best and brightest ballet talent of the future are appearing on The Stevens Centers’ stage today.
As I exit the stage I pass by high school kids doing one another’s makeup and parents leading their little ones to get them dressed for their roles. I think of friends who fondly remember “that time” when they performed in The Nutcracker when they were young.
I head out into the empty theater to soak it in from a different perspective, walking past the orchestra pit which will soon be filled with young, talented musicians. School of Music students comprise the Nutcracker orchestra and make it the largest in the Triad.
So much young talent; so many moving parts. It seems only fitting that proceeds from the show directly fund student scholarships.
When I open the door to walk into the lobby the energy shifts dramatically. Out here there is loud, vivacious chatter about daily doings and the holiday season. It’s campus night so there are loads of students eager to watch their friends and peers take the stage. There are little girls dressed up with big bows, and ladies in sequins and fur. I walk past a boutique with pretty nutcracker souvenirs. Everyone is ready for the magic of The Nutcracker. And honestly, so am I.
My friend Catherine joins me and we take our seats. The lights dim and the audience roars. One by one the painted backdrops descend, the lights sparkle, the music reaches a crescendo and the costumed dancers bring all they have to the stage. I smile a big smile as I forget the backstage tricks and am filled with wonder. I lean over to my friend and whisper, “This is so fun!,”. And for a few hours I remember what it feels like to experience life like a child.
To find performance times and purchase tickets for The Nutcracker, click here.