What happens when Clara grows up and retires her pointe shoes? What happens to all the mice and toy soldiers and candy canes whose childhoods are immersed in the sugar plum fantasy of dancing in the Nutcracker? In honor of American Repertory Ballet’s newly-established alumni association, we tracked down three former dancers who all performed in ARB’s annual production of "The Nutcrackerand and now inhabit the nine-to-five world.
When Bree Humer-Powell, a former student of Princeton Ballet School, was growing up, the Nutcracker was as much a part of the holiday season for her family as putting up a Christmas tree and opening presents. After she left high school, she says, the absence of the Nutcracker "left a big hole in my family around the holidays." They even went through a period of mourning when, she says, if they would hear Nutcracker music on the radio, they would turn it off.
Not only was the Nutcracker experience – rehearsals and performances – integral to her family’s holiday experience, it also provided her and her parents, whose extended family lived outside of New Jersey, with a family-like setting locally.
"That’s the memory that strikes me most – the idea of a family," she says.
Certainly the kids spent a lot of time taking classes and rehearsing, but the parents’ commitment was also intense, says Humer-Powell, now a social worker for Princeton House Behavioral Health. Driving to rehearsals, buying shoes, sewing elastics on the shoes, providing technical help at dress rehearsals, as well as the hours of waiting and volunteering, she says, were real bonding times, creating strong interpersonal relationships. "The parents and kids we met were our ad hoc family."
If the Nutcracker felt like a family to its participants, then perhaps its new alumni association will feel like a family reunion. American Repertory Ballet (formerly Princeton Ballet) and its Princeton Ballet School will launch the ARB Alumni Association with a festive Nutcracker alumni gathering on Saturday, November 26, following the 4:30 p.m. performance at McCarter Theater. (See listing at end for remaining Nutcracker performances in Princeton, Trenton, and New Brunswick.)
As in a family, the Princeton Ballet’s Nutcracker had its own subculture and ways of passing on traditions. Backstage, for example, the mothers of the little kids would learn from the mothers of the big kids how to do makeup and put up hair. "It was like a culture that was passed on from mother to mother," Humer-Powell says, "and eventually, as you got older, you as a performer would teach other girls."
Humer-Powell remembers how Audree Estey, founder of Princeton Ballet, would pass on her wisdom using the same metaphors year after year. She had to prepare the kids, for example, not to look shocked or scared if the nutcracker was late dropping. Year after year she used the same metaphor to explain: "Don’t answer the phone before it rings."
Humer-Powell first went to a Nutcracker performance with her parents when she was tiny. Then in 1977, during her first year taking classes, at age six, she was asked to perform in the Nutcracker. "I started in September," she remembers, "and by early fall they had flagged me to be a mouse, the youngest in the show." But what was most exciting for her was the sense of fulfilling the dream of every young ballerina: "You take a class as a little kid, and when you’re at the barre, you fantasize that you’re performing."
As her technique improved, she moved up through the ranks, from a soldier in the battle scene, to a child in the party scene, and when she was 12 or 13, she danced the role of Clara. Once she was "en pointe," she performed in the corps de ballet scenes and eventually was an understudy and got to dance the role of one of the fairies, a part usually performed by a professional.
Humer-Powell says dance extended into all of her educational choices and career decisions. After graduating from high school, she put off college and pursued more contemporary dance styles and musical theater. Between 1990 and 1995, she got more modern training and performed with various small "pick-up" companies. One was Danceworks, where David Storey had created a more modern version of the Nutcracker, called "Nuts and Crackers;" she performed in it for several years in the public school system.
In 1995 when the arts experienced big cuts and living in New York was getting more expensive, Humer-Powell found that she was working her evening ad agency job more and taking fewer classes in order to make her rent. She decided it was time to move back to New Jersey and go to college.
Between 1995 and 2001, she earned an associate degree at Union County College in sign language interpreting for the deaf. "I saw it as an extension of dance," she recalls. "Both are nonverbal, use the body as a mode of expression, and are visual and use movement." She worked as a freelance interpreter for awhile and signed plays for Bergen Community College.
She eventually signed for a private psychiatrist who had deaf clients, but wasn’t satisfied being a vehicle to convey someone else’s thoughts and ideas. "I became frustrated and wanted to provide services for clients myself," she says. She returned to school, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work from Rutgers.
At Princeton House, where she now works, she does individual and family therapy for women with trauma, post-traumatic stress, and eating disorders. In Manhattan she had seen firsthand the intense pressure among dancers to be thin and, consequently, the high prevalence of eating disorders. "While I was still dancing," she says, "I got interested in working with women who have body and self-esteem issues."
It may seem like she’s moved far away from dance, but that’s not how she sees it. "I see psychotherapy as a creative endeavor – you and your client are like a pas de deux," she says. With each individual, the therapist develops a special rhythm. Even when two people present with the same problem, the techniques that work for one will not necessarily work for the other. If therapy works well, she says, it’s a "moving" experience; she learns something from her clients, and they learn something from her. "And that’s what dance is about – being transformative."
Annie Woodside Gribbins
Annie Woodside Gribbins was also a mouse during her first season in dance – at the ripe old age of four. She started ballet classes primarily because her mother worked as a costume designer at the ballet school. It was simply expedient – she was there anyway. But once she started, she loved it.
Of her first year in the Nutcracker, Gribbins, now the director of ticketing services at McCarter Theater, remembers mostly images of being backstage and watching the big girls in their tutus. But she does remember the first day: "I was so little – what I remember most was that at the very first rehearsal I wouldn’t participate. I sat on the director’s lap for awhile, and then Audree Estey coaxed me to dance."
Gribbins was a student at the Princeton Ballet school until her mid-teens and then became an apprentice for the professional company at age 16. She danced with the company until she was 22.
Gribbins literally grew up with the company, eventually dancing many of the principal roles in the Nutcracker. "I wanted to dance those roles, and I got a chance to do it," she says. "I recognized at the time that that wasn’t something everyone would have chance to do. When dancing them, I really appreciated it." This experience offered her an important life lesson that she carries with her to this day. "If you work hard and earn something, you can make things happen for yourself."
When she left ballet, she had reached the level of soloist with the company, dancing Dewdrop and the Snow Queen in the Nutcracker. "That last season," she says, "lots of things happened that propelled me to look in other directions." She had put off going to college after being offered a professional job with the company. Her family had been supportive, understanding that she had to take that chance. But that last season she started to realize that "maybe it wasn’t the right career for me."
She got a business degree from Mercer County Community College and started to teach at the ballet school. Then she started on a four-year degree in history and economics part-time at the College of New Jersey. She has two children, Shannon and Joseph, which has slowed her academic progress, but she intends to finish.
Professionally Gribbins wanted to stay in the arts. While administering the Summer Intensive program for the ballet school, American Repertory Ballet needed someone to coordinate ticketing for performances that would take place in several different theaters. "I stepped in and did it," she says, "and I certainly hadn’t set a goal for myself to be a director of ticketing."
But, as fate would have it, an opportunity then opened up at McCarter Theater for director of ticketing services. "The opportunities unfolded," she says, "and you follow your skills. Never in a million years did I think it would take me down that path. But it suits me well, and I’m working in the arts."
At the same time she has kept her fingers in dance, through her involvement in teaching and choreography. She choreographed her first piece when she was 16 for PB2, a Princeton Ballet training company of teenage dancers. For Princeton Ballet’s 50th anniversary celebration in May, 2004, Gribbins created "Simple Gifts," which explores how a young girl developed into a dancer, in honor of Audree and Bud Estey who, she says, "were a significant influence on my life and on others."
She is full of anecdotes about her years dancing in the Nutcracker. She tells of the cranky dry ice machine used to create the illusion of fog in the Land of Sweets. The machine was unreliable and would often leak, and sometimes when the fog cleared, gigantic puddles would remain. She remembers whispers about sending out the 9- and 10-year-old Polichinelles, under Mother Ginger’s skirt, with paper towels so they could mop up the floor before the Sugar Plum Fairy and Dew Drop began to dance. "When we were not dancing," she says, "we were back there surreptitiously drying up the puddles."
Gribbins says that her experience with dance has affected her life and decisions in every possible way. "Ballet training is so much more than being about dance," she says. "It’s not just technique and pointe shoes; it’s learning about responsibility, about yourself, and about how to express yourself. You have the discipline, personal responsibility, and goals, and you can take that and apply it to anything."
She resents the "dumb dancer" stereotype. The challenges in dance are just more immediate, she explains, like learning 10 steps, then doing them backward, and at the same time making it all look easy. "The professionals I danced with are the smartest people I know," she says. "So much is required of you as a professional, and I learned to use my brain in different ways." When she returned to school, she "found it less challenging. You have time to do your homework, to think about it, and then to bring it back the next day."
Dance crept into Jim Hutchings life at age 19 when he was asked to appear in the non-dancing role of Drosselmeyer for a Nutcracker in Danbury, Connecticut. As he limped around with an eye patch, he liked what he saw and decided to take a year off from his engineering curriculum at the University of Connecticut to pursue dance. "But I didn’t get serious until I had a couple of teachers tell me I had a real feel for this," he says.
He was a very athletic child, did all the sports, and remembers once watching his sister’s ballet class and thinking what it might be like to participate. Of course, his next thoughts were: "Where do the guys change? They must change with the girls. I don’t want to do that." But now he wishes he had been encouraged to dance earlier in life.
Hutchings never went back to the University of Connecticut but moved to New York instead. "I loved it, and I stayed for 11 years." During the day he worked in a bank, and at night he took classes at Peridance. Eventually he left the bank and started doing the studio’s bookkeeping (a job he learned from his
accountant father). "I was able to go to work in sweats, do the bookkeeping, take another class, do more work, and so on," he says. At about age 24 or 25, he started dancing in their professional company, the Peridance Ensemble.
His wife (before they were married) was acquainted with Dermot Burke, artistic director of ARB, and suggested that Hutchings call Burke and invite him to observe Hutchings in class. "He came to watch me, and didn’t even stay for whole class," says Hutchings. "I wasn’t ready yet, and he wasn’t accepting me into his company."
Two years later, however, when Burke was subbing for Marjorie Mussman, Hutchings went to his class. After class Burke said to him, "I’d like you to come back to class tomorrow. I’m thinking I’d like to have you in my company." After they talked, Burke recognized him, and said, "Did you audition for me once? Wow, you have really improved." And he offered Hutchings the job.
Hutchings danced with Princeton Ballet from 1986 to 1990. "I went to work every day having a great time," he says. He was one of only five or six men in the company, and performed almost every male part in the Nutcracker. Although Hutchings preferred more contemporary dance to the Nutcracker, he did enjoy the camaraderie that developed on and off stage.
School shows of the Nutcracker, however, offered special challenges for a guy who had to come out in white tights before a bunch of first graders. The children would be enthralled by the first act, he says, with its party scene and battles among the soldiers and the rats. But when Hutchings came out, there would be a lot of commentary. Probably in self defense, he recalls cracking jokes with his partner and remembers, "I could feel her chuckling while we were dancing."
When his back started to hurt, and he and his wife were ready to start a family, Hutchings made the decision to leave ballet. A CPA for Peridance had told him to call for a job if he left dance. Hutchings started working in his accounting office and got an accounting degree at night from Rider University
in December, 1997. He passed the CPA exam the first time he sat for it in May, 1998, and today he is a CPA in business for himself in Burlington.
Hutchings misses dance, and he started taking piano lessons a couple years ago to satisfy his artistic side. "There’s something inside your soul that needs to express itself," he says. "Sometimes, but not that often, it is satisfied in business – when you can creatively come up with a solution that works."
But the lessons he learned from dance are still very much a part of his life. The first is a big dose of self-discipline. "When you’re performing, it doesn’t matter how you feel," he says. "You have to go out and perform at a high level. People are paying a lot of money and that’s what they expect." He says he performed with a 102-degree fever; he performed while in pain; and he would get up and go to class "even if you feel like a bus was parked on you all night." His discipline also carried him through college, which he began when his daughter was six months old and he was working 60 hours a week – but he still got all A’s. "It’s similar in a small company," he adds. "Unless you’re dying, you go on."
Dance also taught him to be highly sensitized to his surroundings. "You have to be totally alert when performing," he says. "Things don’t always go right, and you need to be able to adjust as you go."
In his time as a rehearsal assistant, he learned how to be very tactful in dealing with people. "When people are dancing, they’re artists, putting themselves on the line, and you have to be careful about how you criticize if you want them to respond." He uses this skill today with the people he supervises.
He also learned not to beat himself up when he makes a mistake. In dance, if you focus on a mistake, you’re done for, and Hutchings says he learned that the hard way. "You have to move on – and it’s the same thing in business."
He doesn’t dance anymore. "The last time I took a class," he says, "I couldn’t walk for a week." But he quickly adds. "My face was more sore than anything because I was smiling the whole time."
Graham Lustig’s The Nutcracker, American Repertory Ballet, Friday and Saturday, November 25 and 26, 1 and 4:30 p.m., and Sunday, November 27, at 1 p.m., McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787; Saturday, December 3, 1 and 4:30 p.m., Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton, 609-984-8400; Saturday and Sunday, December 17 and 18, 1 and 4:30 p.m., State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469.