Playing live, 'Nutcracker' musicians bring unseen signature to holiday staple

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Ballet Arizona musicians, bottom, and dancers rehearse for the "Nutcracker", Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023, in Phoenix prior to an upcoming performance. A pit full of musicians is part of the tradition of the holiday staple for Ballet Arizona and many other productions around the world. Shows use recordings as they weather costs or crises like recessions. But fans, musicians and the unions that represent them say the live music brings an unseen signature to each show. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PHOENIX – Musicians in a cramped space under a Phoenix stage send up the familiar tones of “The Nutcracker.” Overhead, satin-and-glue pointed toes pitter-patter across stage in a performance of the holiday favorite.

For Ballet Arizona and many other productions around the world, a pit full of musicians is as much part of the tradition as the dancers above.

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Shows can turn to recordings as they weather costs and crises, and in recent years, productions across the country have been working to recover after the pandemic forced them to go silent during public health closures. But fans, musicians and union leaders say live music brings an unseen signature to each show — even if the path is sometimes fraught.

In New York, a production some consider the quintessential American “Nutcracker” opened minutes after musicians agreed to a contract. In Los Angeles, a company gives audiences both options. And in the Phoenix show, the pit was put on hiatus during the Great Recession tied to the 2008 housing crisis.

It wasn’t until joining Ballet Arizona five years ago that Demitra Bereveskos performed “The Nutcracker” to live music. Her “Nutcracker” debut was when she was 7, likely as an angel and little mouse, she said; by her first year in the Phoenix production, she was dancing in “Waltz of the Flowers.”

“I remember being on stage and hearing the opening harp, and I’d never heard a harp like that before and it just set up the entire dance for me,” Bereveskos said. “I was probably soaring the entire time just from hearing the notes plucked on that harp.”

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1892 score follows the story of a young girl who falls into a fantastical dream after being gifted a nutcracker doll. Her adventure, featuring the Nutcracker Prince, Mouse King’s army and Sugar Plum Fairy, draws audiences of all ages to shows that can be as raucous and funny as they are elegant and elaborately choreographed.

Audiences and dancers alike can feel when the score is performed live, said Phoenix Symphony violinist Dian D’Avanzo, who has played the Ballet Arizona show for over 30 years — in the past, with her daughter dancing onstage at the same time.

“I don’t think it feels like Christmas until my first Nutcracker when at the end of the first act, I get to look up and see the snow falling onstage,” said D’Avanzo, who sits at the front of the pit as the “Nutcracker” concertmaster. “We don’t get snow falling here in Phoenix, so when I get to see that snowfall coming down at the end of the first act for the snowflake dance, it’s Christmas.”

If something is missed in the pit, it can profoundly affect the show’s timing, said Phoenix Symphony’s principal horn, Gabe Kovach, who has played over 500 “Nutcracker” shows. The musicians can hear the flutter of the dancers’ feet and the leaps on the stage above many of their heads, which can actually help keep the timing together, he said.

“Things can happen so quickly with staging and the dancers,” said Kovach. Pit performances are arduous, he said, but “when you see the faces of the kids coming down and hanging over the pit, you know it’s their first experience, it definitely rejuvenates you time after time.”

A pit orchestra performs with the New York City Ballet, which debuted “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” in 1954. Sara Cutler, who retired earlier this year as principal harpist, has performed “The Nutcracker” about 2,000 times in over four decades, only taking a year off during the pandemic shutdowns. Even though it came with unexpected challenges — like when blocking had to be changed so that Cutler’s harp would no longer be hit by a ballerina’s falling shoe, thrown each performance to defeat the Mouse King — it was like a ”comfortable slipper that we settle into every Christmastime,” Cutler said.

This year, though, the show opened about 10 minutes after voting ended to ratify the musicians’ contract, said Cutler, president of Associated Musicians of Greater New York, an American Federation of Musicians union.

The union’s largest local started negotiating with the ballet in May — a long, hard process, she said. The ballet’s musicians took a pay cut across the board after pandemic closures were lifted and were still far behind 2019 compensation rates when negotiations started, she said.

“All of that literally got resolved the weekend before ‘Nutcracker’ opened,” she said. “And so yes, there were questions leading up to it. Was there going to be a ‘Nutcracker’? Was the orchestra going to participate in ‘Nutcracker’? We never said we wouldn’t, but it was definitely a hanging question.”

It was a relief when both sides shook hands, said Cutler, who believes live music enhances the experience for everyone from dancers to audience members. The ballet, too, was pleased about reaching an agreement.

“The marriage of music and dance is a hallmark of NYCB," its statement said, calling the New York City Ballet Orchestra's performance of the “magnificent” score “a tremendous enhancement to the production.”

But it’s not uncommon for smaller or midsize companies to use recordings, with the cost of music sometimes eclipsing dancers' pay, said Julia Rivera, director of audience development for the Los Angeles Ballet. The company features an orchestra in some of its “Nutcracker” shows. For the recorded shows, a music supervisor manually times and keys each piece to the pace of the performance.

“I think that when the music is treated carefully, that it doesn’t necessarily take away from the experience to have recorded music,” Rivera said. Some see the musicians as part of the performance, “and although I don’t disagree with that, it is out of reach for some ballet companies.”

When live music is possible, she said, dancers can learn to take direction from artistic directors and conductors alike.

“If they’re dancing with a company that is capable of doing classical story ballets and contemporary and new or avant-garde works, for them to be versatile, to be able to perform in both environments, is very important,” she said.

The Phoenix Symphony and the union that represents its musicians agreed to a new contract over the summer, said Cindy Baker, president of Professional Musicians of Arizona, an American Federation of Musicians union. But around 2008, during the economic downturn, shows did turn to recorded music, said Baker, who plays violin, viola and harp.

“It just wasn’t the same at all,” said Baker.

The pit can be chaotic: Dry ice smoke from the stage might obscure music, and fake snow, sometimes made of plastic, can fall and stick to the musicians, Baker said. Some performers know the music so well they practically have the whole book memorized, and find ways to prank each other as they play the familiar notes. One year, Baker hid tea, coffee and chocolate between the music pages, revealing them one by one as they played on and forcing a fellow musician to contain his laughter.

But like other hallmarks of the iconic ballet, including the Christmas tree that magically becomes taller as the main character dreams, the music doesn’t get old, Baker said.

“It’s still great music so you play it and you know there are kids there with just excitement when they see the tree grow,” Baker said. “It’s always fun.”

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