This article is published through our Regional Reporter Program. We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts through the Digital Now initiative.
This holiday season, Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet will be welcoming Nutcracker back to the Centennial Concert Hall from Dec. 18 through 28, after a two-year hiatus. However, one notable feature will be missing: a full cast of children.
In addition to the leading roles of Clara and her siblings, the ballet’s Nutcracker is known for its creative involvement of young dancers, who, in the past, have danced in supporting roles such as polar bears, party children, angels and baby mice.
This year, after going digital in 2020, there was some concern about how many children to include in the production due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Tara Birtwhistle, associate artistic director, explained that the production has been scaled back from its usual three casts to two for the performances in Winnipeg, and the directors have had to make some tough decisions. Namely, cutting the much-loved baby mice, who are usually the youngest dancers in the ballet.
According to Elizabeth Lamont, who will be dancing the role of grown-up Clara, the choices have felt strange.
“Every other time we’ve made these tweaks, we’ve usually added children,” she said. “So it’s weird to take away children.”
She explained that, for kids at the recreational school, landing a spot in Nutcracker is usually their first chance to dance with a company on a major stage, and she knows how formative that experience can be. She was a student in the professional school, danced the role of young Clara in 2005 and has been a company member since 2010.
“You get invited into that performance role, and usually people fall in love with it, and it’s their first chance, their first taste,” she said.
But that’s not the only chance for the students to experience professional dancing. The kind of exposure, inspiration and progression that occurs at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet may have something to do with the way the building is laid out, suggested Birtwhistle.
“The recreational school, the professional school, the company, everyone can see each other walking through the hallways,” she said. The studios also have windows, so those young eyes can peer in.
“Oftentimes the recreational kids will see company dancers walking around, and the Nutcracker would be the first thing they’d see, so they’d aspire to be in the Nutcracker,” she explained. She also mentioned that some of the current company members started in the recreational school.
Although changes like a reduced cast of children this year aren’t ideal, Lamont said that the pandemic has trained everyone at the ballet to quickly adapt to new realities.
“That’s also kind of part of the evolution of the Nutcracker,” she said. “It can’t stay the same. The traditions will stay the same, but there’s an evolving part of all dances.”
One of the most striking evolutions this year is probably that audiences will witness Lamont’s ascension from the role of child Clara to grown-up Clara.
She recalls recently uncovering a video from 2005 in which she is performing grown-up Clara’s choreography in the dressing room.
“Obviously, I knew it because I’d watched the prima ballerina do it so many times, and I was in my change room and just doing it with a chair – super cringey, but cute,” she said.
Her progression is actually reflected in the plot of Nutcracker, she explained. In the original story, “Clara undergoes a transformation from a young girl into an older, more mature girl, and all of her dreams come true.”
“And magic, and creating your dreams and living your dreams. That’s such a real thing,” she said.