It was Christmas in September inside the studios of the Sacramento Ballet last weekend as hundreds of tiny dancers auditioned for roles in the annual production of the Nutcracker. The summer sun beat against the windows as iconic Nutcracker music played on a loop, conjuring visions of sugar plums and snow.
It was everything you picture a ballet audition to be, complete with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, an instructor with a singsong voice, leotards and tights. Dancers from ages 6 to 17 learned new choreography and danced to secure their spot in the December performance.
A staggering amount of grace was packed into little bodies. Tiny ballet shoes waltzed, pliéd and pirouetted with a surprising amount of polish across the scuffed rubber floors. They also came untied.
Kids are kids, after all – with the poise came untied shoes, trip-ups, nervous giggles and all of their contagious enthusiasm.
Sacramento Ballet Artistic Director Amy Seiwert led the auditions alongside Children’s Ballet Master Grant Spencer. Their optimism and enthusiasm for the performance was evident in the way they ran auditions, as teachers rather than scrutinizing observers.
One of the most important things in the audition process, Seiwert said, is joy.
“Truly, how much joy do they have? Can we see how much they want to dance?” Seiwert said. “Joy is a determining factor.”
That joy carries over into the rehearsal process and all the way into the performance, too. Sacramento Ballet student Morgan Friesen, 11, is on her sixth performance in the Nutcracker, and said she enjoys the night of the performance the most.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking,” Morgan said, “But once you’re on stage you feel better and you feel confident and you’re just happy for dancing.”
Those backstage and onstage moments bring joy to the adults involved in the performance as well, said Seiwert and Spencer.
“There’s really fantastic moments when you get to see them backstage, or in a rehearsal, that you see lights in their eyes, or the little sparkle, or that little moment that they get it,” Spencer said. “... It reminds you of how special it is, when you get to see it through those little eyes.”
The dancers hear back about their auditions within a week. There will be about a hundred kids on stage each night of the performance, and multiple casts will be chosen for different nights, giving Seiwert and Spencer around 300 roles to cast.
They decide what students get what roles in which cast based on dance ability, height, coordination, and of course, joy.
Rehearsals start as soon as September 28, since children only rehearse on the weekend, Spencer said.
“We also try to make it so that they rehearse enough, so when they’re on stage they can enjoy it. They’re not like, ‘Oh, what comes next?’” Seiwert said.
“They know what comes next, they’re prepared. It’s one of the tools for them to really succeed.”
The performance itself will see the children join the Sacramento Ballet’s professional company onstage, a rare opportunity for young dancers.
“Since this is a company school, I like the integration of the professional company members with the kids,” said 14-year-old Sacramento Ballet student Trinity Gomes, who is in her eighth year in the production. “The way they interact on stage is really fun.”
Many of the professional dancers were once child dancers in the Nutcracker, and many of the young dancers do the production for years. Seiwert said this unique “lineage” is one of the most special parts of the production.
“Watching kids grow up in the production, watching how they watch these guys, how they idolize the professionals,” Seiwert said. “I remember the choreography I did when I was 8 years old, on stage in the Nutcracker. I remember the people who were my parents in the party scene. You hang on to these memories. To watch these guys develop that is one of the things I love.”
For dancers like Seiwert and Spencer, who had long careers in professional dance, the Nutcracker is a great reminder of why they started dancing in the first place, Seiwert said.
“The amount of joy…. It’s a reminder of the magic of what you do.”