In December, the mice kings crawl out of their hiding places and the sugarplum fairies tiptoe across the stage as ballet studios and companies across town prepare for their “Nutcracker” performances.
Like most, the students and staff of Dancing in the Streets Arizona labor throughout the entire year to put on their annual performance of “The Nutcracker.” After months of perfecting pirouettes and leaps, numerous bottles of Orajel for aching toes in pointe shoes, and hours spent on costumes, the more than 100 performers are eager for the big event, Saturday and Sunday.
For Soleste Lupu, who co-founded South Tucson’s Dancing in the Streets Arizona with her husband, Joseph Rodgers, when one “Nutcracker” closes, she starts planning the next one.
“It’s a 365-day process,” she says.
Most of those presenting “The Nutcracker” have a similar plan-all-year attitude. Here’s a look at how Dancing in the Streets does it:
In a room lined with mirrors and packed with costume racks on wheels, dancer and volunteer Corinne Hobson sits before a stack of turquoise costumes that look as though they came fresh off the set of “I Dream of Jeannie.” In between sips of a Starbucks double-shot mocha drink from a can, Hobson hand-stitches delicate embellishments onto the costumes that will be used for the Arabian dance scene.
“I grew up helping my mom sew dance costumes,” says Hobson. “It’s a very useful skill to know in the dance world.”
Hobson’s seamstress-like talent is not her only contribution to the production. She practiced modern dance before she began to study ballet technique with Rodgers and Lupu three years ago. This year, Hobson will perform in several scenes and has four costume changes. She also volunteers, helping other dancers perfect their techniques in their solo and duet numbers.
“Before the show, I’ll be fixing a hem while gluing my pointe shoes,” says Hobson. “There’s always something you miss, and you end up missing it until the end. It’s all part of production.”
The costume room is loaded with fluffy skirts, angel wings, sparkly jewels, mouse heads and piles of tutus.
“There’s a stack of about 10 tutus over here,” says Hobson. “There’s at least 20 more in Soleste’s car.”
Hobson says that the studio calls one of Joey’s relative’s houses where no one lives the “storage house” because it’s filled to the brim with costumes.
With 100 dancers, there are 500 costumes that are flaunted during the performance. Every dancer has at least two costume changes. The costumes are reused each year, but they are always given a new purpose by either taking on a new character or receiving some kind of newfangled embellishment. Extra baubles for the costumes are collected throughout the year from craft stores and even dollar stores, says Hobson.
In the final crunch, right before the production, the studio rents a moving truck to transport the costumes to the Fox Tucson Theatre, where the performance will be.
“It’s just racks of costumes,” says Lupu. “And at the theater, there isn’t an elevator, so we have to transport the costumes through the orchestra pit.”
Backstage during the show is the most hectic part of the entire production, says Lupu. The Fox Tucson Theatre has a relatively small backstage, making the behind-the-scenes area quite challenging.
Though the storyline of the ballet is strongly defined and based on dance movement, set pieces are incorporated to build a sense of scene. Objects such as a trimmed Christmas tree and a giant candy dish add extra sparkle to the show. In one dance, snow falls delicately from the sky onto the stage.
“The snow gets slippery,” says Hobson. “It’s scary to dance on.”
Rodgers says that the real action of the performance isn’t on stage, but it’s behind the scenes. The dancers must do their costume changes in an extremely fast time and in very little space.
Cooperation is essential when working in such a small space.
In early November, two ballerinas perch on the floor, pointing their toes, arching their backs, and leaning forward to gracefully stretch before their rehearsals begin. It’s easy to see that these dancers are dedicated to their art, as their pink pointe shoes with ribbons bind their ankles like satin boa constrictors. From the audience, these shoes look immaculate and elegant, but up close you see the soles are worn and gray from the hours of rehearsal . Pointe shoes appear to be the most graceful and gorgeous of all dance shoes, but they are painful. It’s the dancer’s job to make the shoes look dainty as they tiptoe across the stage.
“I’m the ballerina doll; it’s my first solo,” says 14-year-old Marisella Molina.
She started en pointe in September. For Molina, who has been dancing for just over a year, this year’s “Nutcracker” performance will be a milestone in her short ballet career. The character of the ballerina doll has very sharp upper body movements that portray the choppy nature of a classic children’s toy doll. Those moves must be executed on refined and petite pointe shoes. Traditionally, a dancer’s first ballet solo comes with a special tutu — Molina is justifiably proud of that tutu and her accomplishments.
Liz Beth Oquita, 14, is eager to dance the role of the Snow Queen. Liz Beth started her ballerina days at Dancing in the Streets five years ago. She has been practicing for the role since last October.
“I’m a very nervous person,” she says. “But after the first few steps on stage, I become confident.”
Working with Rodgers and as a community
Most ballet teachers wear ballet apparel to class. Joey Rodgers wears a Green Bay Packers jersey. He throws out dozens of nicknames at the dancers, has a booming voice that can be heard from the studio parking lot, and has a contagious laugh that infects even the parents waiting outside the rehearsal rooms. He is loud and vivacious, and the kids love it.
“The kids learn really well while having a great time doing ballet,” says Hobson. “It’s never quiet here.”
Rodgers’ teaching style is nontraditional. Ballet instruction is typically rigid and sharp. Instead, he creates a comfortable atmosphere and understands how to relate to each dancer in order to help the child be successful.
Mariah Molina, who has watched Rodgers teach two daughters, including the soloist Marisella, says that he has helped her daughters learn to dance in a healthy environment.
“My youngest daughter is super-shy and has a hard time in school, but when she’s alone she is always singing and dancing, and here she is learning how to perform,” says Molina. “The best thing about Dancing in the Streets is that I’m able to bring my daughters and (I) can afford it. It’s not competitive. It’s nurturing and they are able to establish friendships.”
Student, volunteer points of view
“I like to help,” says 11-year-old Ceres Willis as she watches little dancers sashaying across the floor through the rehearsal room observation window. When Ceres isn’t assisting with costume organization and helping the other dancers with their hair, she participates in modern dance at her elementary school and is enthusiastic about her ballet work at Dancing in the Streets. This year she gets to dance as a flower, chocolate and tea.
At Dancing in the Streets, the dancers feel a sense of community. Dance studios and performances often have a fend-for-yourself nature. But at Dancing in the Streets, Ceres and her contemporaries see it as a joint effort.
“I get to help anyone who needs it, especially with lipstick and hair,” says Willis. “Especially with the lipstick, because it will smudge.”