Like most ballet companies, Houston Ballet has a long-standing Nutcracker tradition. And so, the production and its elements are woven into the fabric of the company culture. When new members enter the community, I imagine them as threads, being absorbed into the warp and woof.
For a company apprentice like Madison Morris, already a part of the wider Houston dance community before entering the Houston Ballet Academy as a youth, Ben Stevenson’s production of The Nutcracker must feel truly etched in the consciousness.
Though born in Charlotte, NC, Madison moved to Dallas with her family just after her first birthday. In any other locale, one might be considered a native in this case but, this is Texas. So, quoting what is possibly the state’s most popular fridge magnet, Madison mentions, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!”
At four, she and her family moved to Houston where her mother enrolled her at Woodlands Civic Ballet. “For seven years, I trained as both a ballerina and a competitive gymnast. In February 2005, I auditioned and was accepted into Houston Ballet’s Summer Intensive Program as a Level 3/Level 4 dancer. After three full years training in Houston Ballet Academy and two years in Houston Ballet II (HBII), I am now enjoying dancing professionally with Houston Ballet,” she explains.
The Corps Experience
While each dancer performs many roles throughout the Nutcracker run, each learns even more than they will perform. Madison has been charged with knowing eleven corps de ballet roles for this production. She will perform eight of them throughout the season’s 34 shows.
Madison took time-out from her busy schedule to answer a few of my questions about what it’s like to perform in the corps during this busy holiday season. She reveals both the hard work and dedication required of apprentices and the corps and an insider’s view of the sometimes action-packed events going on behind the scenes at Nutcracker performances.
Dance Advatage: Describe the preparation and rehearsal process for The Nutcracker.
Madison Morris: In October, while rehearsing for other current or future productions, it’s typical to be called to different Nutcracker rehearsals as well. We begin to learn, or freshen our memories, on our assigned parts. From this point forward , we strive to perfect our execution of the choreography. Then, in early November, Nutcracker rehearsals kick into full swing. In addition to dancing, learning a piece commonly involves reviewing recorded performances from previous years.
DA: What is your approach to staying healthy during this time?
MM: The same arsenal of common sense I attempt to employ year round. I eat a well-balanced diet and take vitamins to fuel my body. Also, Vitamin C, Fish Oil and B-12 to boost my immune system, as needed. The moment I feel a sore throat begin, I have learned taking a Mushroom Complex supplement wards it off.
Hydration helps me through hectic training times, too. In addition to water, I drink coconut water. It is more natural than a sports drink, low in calories, and it is loaded with Vitamin C, electrolytes, and potassium. It even beats bananas! My two favorite flavors are mango and pink guava.
I keep water or coconut water on hand at all times and I make sure to eat protein. I don’t always have time for a meal, so snacks are really important. I enjoy pumpkin seeds, cocoa almonds, cashews, and trail mixes. I also love fresh and dried fruits.
DA: You’ll have lots of dual performance days during the run. What do you do in between a matinee and evening show?
MM: I look forward to resting and refueling myself between shows. I usually pack a dinner or go back home to grab a bite to eat. Occasionally, a group of us venture out for a coffee or quick bite.
DA: Which roles are you cast in for this season’s Nutcracker?
MM: Mirliton, Columbine Doll, Flower, Snowflake, Ginger Legs, and three different mothers in the party scene.
DA: Is it a challenge sometimes to remember what you are doing, and when? Are there any tricks to keeping it all straight?
MM: Yes, it can prove challenging to keep the roles separate in your mind. One year, throughout the run of shows, I performed two different snowflake spots, which were on completely opposite ends of the stage at one moment, and then directly beside each other the next.
I think it is far easier to separate choreography in your mind, and body, if they are on opposite sides of the stage, because your body can recognize the parts as distinctly different. At one point in the snowflakes dance there is a ripple effect down the “snowbank” of dancers. The year I performed these two snowflakes spots, I either moved on count one or count two. Since they were directly next to each other spatially and in timing, I always had to make sure to focus on that section to ensure my muscle memory would not lapse into the other part.
One thing I find helpful for keeping multiple parts straight is to simply write out the different roles on paper.
DA: Which is your favorite role to dance?
MM: I love the music and choreography of Houston Ballet’s Waltz of the Flowers. The movements feel very natural and are a joy to dance as you flow with the music and attempt to consume the stage. The flowing choreography, with the corps de ballet dressed in yellow and green romantic tutus, subtly reminds me of a garden full of the “Yellow Rose of Texas.” This year, I am also looking forward to performing as the Columbine Doll in Act I and as a Mirliton in Act II.
DA: Is it difficult to give a fresh performance each time?
MM: I find taking it one show at a time and remembering that each audience deserves a great performance motivates me to keep it lively. Though the choreography and music are unchanged from show to show, the one fresh factor remains the viewers. An audience’s enthusiasm can fill the theatre and fuel the dancers with energy.
DA: Okay, every ballet dancer I know has one: What’s your funny Nutcracker story?
MM: My funniest Nutcracker memory involves rushing to fill an empty spot last year in the battle scene in which the girls portray rats and boys act as toy soldiers.
Not cast as a rat for this particular show, I was preparing for and focusing on my role in flowers. When the rats left the basement dressing room to join the battle scene, there was one rat costume still hanging unused. Out of those of us available, who instantly realized there was a rat “missing in action,” I was the only one in pointe shoes who might have had a prayer of making it in time to go on stage.
Immediately, HBII teamwork saved the day. While I tore the flowers headpiece off my head, one friend grabbed the rat tail harness, another got the body suit, and still another secured the helmet/mask. As my friends helped me dress in record time, another HBII deduced I needed to fill the #6 rat spot, which I had never done before. I, literally, ran down the Wortham (Center) basement halls, up the stairs, and around the back of the stage to join the other rats as they entered the scene.
Once on stage, I was clueless on the specifics of rat #6 throughout the battle. Thankfully, somehow my toy soldier with whom I was to “fight” was notified of the sudden substitute filling his rat partner’s costume. He was able to drag me through the scene. The funniest moment, for me, occurred near the end of the battle. As the scene drew to a close the rat king died, and I started to let out slight sighs of relief. Then, suddenly I wondered if rat #6 was to help carry the king safely off stage?!? It would not do to have a dead rat king laying on stage during the snowflake scene.
Needless to say, relief flooded me once I arrived back in the dressing room. As it turned out, the missing rat was actually in the building, but forgot she was assigned this performance.
Great story, Madison!
What’s YOUR Nutcracker story?
While you’re thinking, enjoy this excerpt from Houston Ballet’s The Nutcracker battle scene:
Nichelle Suzanne is a writer specializing in dance and online content. She is also a dance instructor with over 20 years experience teaching in dance studios, community programs, and colleges. She began Dance Advantage in 2008, equipped with a passion for movement education and an intuitive sense that a blog could bring dancers together. As a Houston-based dance writer, Nichelle covers dance performance for Dance Source Houston, Arts+Culture Texas, and other publications. She is a leader in social media within the dance community and has presented on blogging for dance organizations, including Dance/USA. Nichelle provides web consulting and writing services for dancers, dance schools and studios, and those beyond the dance world. Read Nichelle’s posts.