They Danced in The Nutcracker As Children. Now They're Performing It Again As Adults | Playbill

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Classic Arts Features They Danced in The Nutcracker As Children. Now They're Performing It Again As Adults

Three New York City Ballet dancers share their childhood memories.

Left: Shelby Mann in the Waltz of the Flowers in 2022. Right: Mann as a Polichinelle in 2013 Erin Baiano (L), Paul Kolnik (R)

A hallmark of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is its roster of 126 children, aged 7 to 13, in two alternating casts, who all study in the Children’s Division at the School of American Ballet (SAB), New York City Ballet’s official school. A small percentage of those students will eventually move up to the Advanced Division at SAB, and at the end of their studies, a few will be invited to join NYCB, achieving the total Nutcracker experience—returning to Balanchine’s quintessential holiday ballet to perform as adults.

That storied third group includes former NYCB Principal Dancers Peter Boal, Jennie Somogyi, Gelsey Kirkland, and Judith Fugate, among others, as well as current corps de ballet members Shelby Mann, Mckenzie Bernardino Soares, and Rommie Tomasini, who each enrolled in SAB at the age of 6. Now coming back to the production as members of the corps de ballet, which they joined in 2022, they shared their fond memories of those formative years performing in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.

Shelby Mann’s earliest recollections of being in The Nutcracker are of playing jacks, a favored pre-show ritual for young cast members, and of her trailing hairpiece in the Party Scene. “My memories of The Nutcracker are so heightened,” she says. “Every time I smell hairspray, it’s like I’m back in the lower concourse of the theatre during The Nutcracker.”

From her debut at age 7 in the Party Scene, Mann sprinted up the Nutcracker ladder, appearing as an Angel, a Polichinelle, a Mouse, and then, at the ripe age of 11, a Candy Cane. “We would all look forward to The Nutcracker each year. It was what defined our childhood and our winter,” she says.

Born into a dance-world family in Harlem—her grandfather Jacques d’Amboise, grandmother Carolyn George, and uncle Christopher d’Amboise all danced with NYCB, and her parents are acclaimed Broadway performers Charlotte d’Amboise and Terrence Mann—Mann discovered her passion for dance through the iconic holiday ballet. “I loved that in rehearsals, because you were playing a character, you got to build your performance. Being in The Nutcracker made me realize that this is what I wanted to do.”

Since joining NYCB, Mann has danced Dolls, Snow, Hot Chocolate, and Flowers, and her affection for Balanchine’s two-act masterpiece—and the camaraderie that develops naturally among the cast, no matter what age—remains undiminished. “I love how The Nutcracker connects to the holidays,” she says. “We all decorate our dressing rooms, have Secret Santas, and bring cookies.”

Left: Mckenzie Bernardino Soars with Shelby Mann in Hot Chocolate in 2022. Right: Soares as a Soldier in 2012 Erin Baiano (L), Paul Kolnik (R)

During his childhood performances in The Nutcracker, Mckenzie Bernardino Soares made a point of watching the effervescent Hot Chocolate. “The music, the spice—I just loved it,” he says. “And I remember thinking, dancing this is all I want to do in my life.”

Fast forward to 2021. As a freshly minted NYCB apprentice, Soares landed his dream role and repeated it last year as a member of the corps de ballet. The verdict? “It’s always a fun time on stage, and you get to show your personality,” he says. “And if it gets a little repetitive sometimes, I just think, well, little Mckenzie would have loved to do this.”

Growing up in Danbury, Connecticut, Soares’ Nutcracker experience was punctuated by long hours in the family car, driving 65 miles each way to rehearsals and performances. “Being on stage made it all worth it,” he says. He also enjoyed supervising the younger dancers backstage during “the gap” when SAB students are too old for children’s parts, and he relished hearing advice from Company members backstage and in the wings.

This season, Soares, who added Mouse King to his Nutcracker repertory last year, looks forward to using the roles he dances to expand his artistry. “It’s actually nice that the choreography is the same every day, so it becomes about what you bring to each performance,” he says.

Left: Rommie Tomasini in Waltz of the Snowflakes in 2021. Right: Tomasini as the Bunny in 2011 Erin Baiano (L), Paul Kolnik (R)

Rommie Tomasini remembers begging her mother to let her audition for SAB, where her older sister was a student, and quickly discovering a love of dance. At age 7, she was cast as the Bunny in The Nutcracker. A season as a Mouse and a Polichinelle followed, and for two years, she was Marie. When the time came to begin pointe work, she decided that ballet was her future. “I didn’t want to do anything else after school, and I thought, This is a done deal,” she says.

Her earliest Nutcracker memory dates from her first dress rehearsal. “I was the Bunny, and I remember looking at all the mouse heads on the Mouse King’s crown and being too terrified to pull his tail,” she recalls.

Yet looking back, Tomasini, who grew up on the Upper East Side, marvels at how confident she felt on stage as a child. “I was never nervous. I was just so happy to be out there. I’m amazed at how much we learned about acting and artistry so young.”

Dolls, Snow, Hot Chocolate, and Tea are among the Nutcracker parts Tomasini has performed since she became an apprentice in 2021. But her recollections of being in a swarm of Nutcracker kids, scrutinizing the steps and making up versions of Hot Chocolate, Marzipan, and Coffee, remain vivid. “It’s mind-blowing that we’re now dancing the roles that we once pretended to do backstage,” she says.

Terry Trucco writes frequently about the arts and travel.

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