I’m not ashamed to admit that there are few things in this world that I love as much as The Nutcracker. I’ve danced my fair share of Snow Cavaliers and Nutcracker Princes and I even own an Abraham Lincoln nutcracker figurine reading the Gettysburg Address. So you can only imagine how excited I was when my friends in Samborondon, Ecuador asked me to set their first production.
My early stages of preparation began with a conversation with the schools directors to find out what the cultural significance of The Nutcracker was in Ecuadorian culture. I quickly learned that in a country that is 99 percent Roman Catholic, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker does not go seamlessly hand-in-hand with their holiday season. Instead, the culture here this time of year revolves around religion. I learned that besides sharing and eating nuts on Christmas Eve, there’s not much connection to The Nutcracker—and it’s rarely, if ever, seen in a way that Americans are accustomed.
Before rehearsals began I asked myself, “How can I teach a ballet that is so iconic to me in a place where the cultural relevance is slim to none?” So I decided to begin our first day with a discussion that started out with the question: What is the first word that comes to mind when I say “Nutcracker?” To my surprise, answers weren’t that far off: Answers included happiness, candies, imagination, toys, and dreams.
Once I knew my dancers were engaged, I broadened the discussion to include my own experiences with the ballet i.e., performing different parts when growing up, hearing Tchaikovsky’s music constantly played in malls and grocery stores, and seeing the ballet performed as a staple of almost every major ballet company in the US. I followed this by asking how my experiences compare to their experiences with The Nutcracker? This question seemed to be a little harder to answer—a few dancers had read the story, but the majority of students only knew the ballet from a Barbie DVD.
Overall, spending a rehearsal discussing our cultural differences and experiences really helped the process. Not only did it inform students of the story of The Nutcracker, it helped make them personally and emotionally invested in the upcoming rehearsal process because we had taken the time to share and listen to each other. Since the students recognized that this ballet was important to me, they want to make me proud and for themselves, create their own Nutcracker traditions. Rehearsals are ready to begin!