by Terry Bush
It’s been just over a month since Charly auditioned for Champaign-Urbana Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker. She was cast as one of the Polichinelles, the kids who emerge from under Mother Ginger’s skirt and perform a brief dance in the second act.
Two eight-girls-and-a-boy platoons of Polichinelles were cast. With seven performances over two weekends, exhausting 6-year-olds is a real possibility. Charly’s group will appear in three performances, the other group in four.
Half-hour rehearsals are now part of our Saturday. Between casting and opening night, they have 10 rehearsals to learn the choreography for their two and one-half minute dance. While a half-hour seems like very little rehearsal time each week, it’s about all the attention span the Polichinelles can muster.
Both platoons attend each rehearsal. Led by two company dancers, they review the sequence of steps already learned, and then one group watches while the other learns the next part of the dance. After a few run-throughs, the platoons switch places. The Polichinelles learn by watching and by doing.
The first challenge is getting all of the kids who are hidden under Mother Ginger’s skirt to move together. A hand on the shoulder of the person next to them, they learn to side-step together. Then they emerge in pairs, skip downstage, bow….
Rehearsal usually continues when we get home. Charly is anxious to show her “new moves” to whichever parent didn’t attend. In fact, as far as she’s concerned, everyone who visits our house is a new audience. Baby-sitters are special targets for the whole Nutcracker story and her part in it.
Between rehearsals, ballet in general and The Nutcracker in particular seem to be constantly on her mind. Charly often rehearses the choreography as a break from whatever else she’s doing. Even her skipping around the house is more disciplined and graceful now. She’s careful to place her hands on her hips, point her toes and to raise her foot to the level of her knee. She often quizzes us about mime gestures during dinner. “Do you know how to say ‘open’ in mime?” Or close or married or…
I’m happy to report that none of this additional practice is parentally induced. It’s something she began on her own. Our only job is to applaud. And we do.
From my “parental platform,” I am enjoying watching how The Nutcracker production comes together. It’s big — over 100 dancers. It’s complex — thousands of details to be managed. And the physical demands it places on dancers rival those of competitive athletes. This company works very, very hard.
The Nutcracker has quite a history as everyone’s favorite Christmas ballet. To understand where Charly and the Polichinelles fit in requires a brief summary of this story of Clara, a young girl who receives a nutcracker as a Christmas gift. She falls asleep under the Christmas tree with the nutcracker in her arms.
At midnight, she is awakened by an army of large mice invading the room. Her nutcracker organizes the soldier toys into battle formation and the fight is on. At one point, the Mouse Queen has the nutcracker cornered. Clara intervenes and the mice retreat. The nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince who takes Clara on a magical journey through a snowy forest.
When they arrive in The Land of the Sweets, they are greeted by The Sugar Plum Fairy. They reenact their battle with the Mouse Queen. She is so impressed with their bravery that she treats them to a celebration of dances that includes the Polichinelles.
The word Polichinelle translates from French as “buffoon.” In some productions of The Nutcracker, the Polichinelles are envisioned and costumed as clowns who disrupt the celebration until Mother Ginger can regain control of them. CU Ballet’s producer, Tracy McCabe, describes an artistic and practical role for the kids as designed by the company’s artistic director Deanna Doty.
“On an artistic level, the kids are part of the community in the Land of Sweets and so they would of course be included in the celebration. They are sweet and dignified. On a practical level, we want the kids in the audience to identify with the Polichinelles, to believe that they, too, can be part of the ballet.”
In our case, mission accomplished. They made a believer of Charly.
Terry Bush is a writer, guitar player and retired university vice president. He teaches for the University of Phoenix on-line, manages the chambanamoms.com event calendar and serves as the domestic staff for his daughter, Charly.