Behind the scenes at the Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’

School of Pennsylvania Ballet students Jane Cohen and Aidan Duffy rehearse "George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker." Credit: Alexander Iziliaev
School of Pennsylvania Ballet students Jane Cohen and Aidan Duffy rehearse “The Nutcracker.”
Credit: Alexander Iziliaev

A core member of the Pennsylvania Ballet since 2010, Alex Ratcliffe-Lee is no stranger to physically and mentally challenging dances.

But wearing a giant mouse head while leaping onstage is quite another matter.

For a third season, Ratcliffe-Lee has been selected to play the Mouse King in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.”

“To be honest, I’m really not sure why they chose me for this. I guess they saw that I could project as a funny-looking evil villain in some way,” says Ratcliffe-Lee. (Yes, RATcliffe is his real name.) “Basically, I’m on stage for five minutes, and I’m sweating my face off by the end of it.”

For a professional dancer, the Mouse King’s ballet doesn’t contain an intimidating degree of difficulty. Yet, Lee continues to rehearse and refine the movements, almost incessantly.

“The helmet is just so hard to see out of — and hearing the music is another challenge. I practiced a lot in a brightly lit space just to get used to it,” he explains. “So it’s about setting it on stage in the costume over and over. I have to know my sequences perfectly. There have been times when I miss steps, and a jump is not successful. That’s no good.”

 

For aspiring Mouse Kings:

Alex Ratcliffe-Lee has some tips for dancing the role of the Mouse King:

1. Accept that you will make a lot of children cry and shriek in horror.

2. Demand a secure mouse head, fitted to your eye level.

3. Be careful that your mice minions don’t step on your cape.

 

Prepping the youngest dancers

After dancing with the Pennsylvania Ballet for more than 15 years – and becoming a crowd favorite many times over – Arantxa Ochoa will watch this year’s “Nutcracker” from the wings.

Ochoa is the new children’s ballet mistress for the show. And her new gig is, perhaps, even more taxing than dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy six times a week. Her assignment is to teach dozens of grade school-aged children complex choreography, as well as guide them through multiple costume changes and cues, and, of course, to prevent them from burning down the Academy of Music.

“I think the hardest thing for me has been adjusting my expectations for consistency. I have to remind myself that they are children. One day they come in and they [dance] beautifully, and the next day, I’m like, ‘What happened?’” Ochoa explains. “With adults you can assume they’re going to grow a little every day, but children, I think, naturally need to take two steps forward and one step back.”

 

“George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker”
Dec. 7-29
Pennsylvania Ballet at the Academy of Music
240 S. Broad St.
www.paballet.org


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