So Nimbus Dance Works Artistic Director Samuel Pott offered me a behind-the-scenes look at the company’s upcoming production of “Jersey City Nutcracker,” an adaptation of the ballet classic. I still have a dress rehearsal to go to and a performance on Friday, so we’ll see how the rest of the experience goes. It’s been fun so far!
Playing Mama Cannoli: A Behind-the-Scenes look at “Jersey City Nutcracker”
No holiday production is more magical than “The Nutcracker” – ballet dancers floating across the stage to the sweet sounds of Tchaikovsky, snow, sweets, the Christmas spirit.
So of course, when Nimbus Dance Works Artistic Director Samuel Pott offered me a chance to perform in a non-dancing role (thank God) and get a behind the scenes look at his company’s adaptation, “Jersey City Nutcracker,” the little girl inside me jumped up and down and said, “Yes!”
For one night only, I will get to play “Mama Cannoli,” the troupe’s version of the infamous Mother Ginger, who lifts up the skirt of her gigantic dress to reveal her dancing children, the Bon Bons.
The show will also feature 100 other dancers – mostly under the age of 18 – who will be part of the company’s first full-length presentation of the classic. Last year, they tested the waters by performing the show’s second act.
Nimbus’s production offers a Chilltown take on the E. T. A. Hoffmann tale in which a lower-class boy and a wealthy girl whose friendship is threatened by their financial disparity and mocking from others. “It’s very ‘Jersey City’,” said Pott. “Here, the rich and poor cross paths and there are eccentrics, there are bullies.”
As the kids escaped their chaotic world in the fantastical realm of the Nutcracker, audiences were enraptured.
“Last year’s show turned out to be a real success. It really kind of took on a life of its own!” said Pott.
The full adaptation, he said, will feature “truck tires, shopping carts, traffic cones, all kinds of items that you might associate with the urban grit of Jersey City that turn into something magical and fantastic.”
Even the most traditional elements – like the Sugar Plum Fairy, played by Pott’s wife PeiJu Chien-Pott, and the Rat King – aren’t exempt from Nimbus’ JC twist. For example, the Rat King and Nutcracker’s battle is a dance-off complete with “b-boys” and “b-girls” breakdancing.
“It’s really a story about the power of imagination, fantasy and the holiday spirit to make a positive change in the world,” Pott said.
As someone with the grace, agility and athleticism of a wet noodle, I hoped the power of imagination could help me, too, as I transformed into Mama Cannoli.
I prepared for my role at Next Step Broadway dance studio in Jersey City with Nimbus dancer Fanny Gombert and 10 little angels under her tutelage who would play my “Cookies.”
I watched as the girls – ages 5 and 6 – rehearsed the routine. They were divided in two casts of six (two of the girls were absent) and were in charge of pushing a wooden cart carrying Mama Cannoli onto the stage and performing for the crowd.
After I watched them for a few minutes, Gombert said it was time for me to join the fun. She helped me put on a gigantic hoop skirt made out of PVC tubes strapped loosely together. I gingerly climbed up the step ladder on the wooden cart and put my fate into the Cookies’ hands.
Gombert started the music and coached me as the Cookies wheeled me out. “Mama Cannoli is happy, you are greeting the crowd, you can wave at them – big arm gestures!”
I imagined that the Cookies and I were entering the stage at Grace Church Van Vorst to a round of wild applause. I waved my arms with flourish to the imaginary audience as the girls moved me into the imaginary spotlight.
“She’s so heavy!” said one girl.
“She must weigh…100 pounds!” said another.
“Yes,” I said. “I weigh exactly 100 pounds.”
They wheeled me into place, then lifted the bottom of the “skirt” as the music changed. One by one, the girls jumped out and ran downstage, where they stood in a line. As Mama Cannoli, I gushed over my Cookies’ dancing as they wrote letters in the air spelling “C-O-O-K-I-E-S” and played patty-cake and ring-around-the-rosie.
Eventually, they all ran back under my skirt, except for one who refused, wanting to stay and play. Miming, I scanned the horizon for my missing Cookie, spotted her from afar, and sent my bravest Cookie to find her and bring her back. Reunited, the Cookies and I exited stage right. In my mind, the curtain went down, the crowd went wild and we all won Tony awards on the spot.
After the rehearsal, Gombert revealed to me that the girls had actually not practiced for two weeks because of Thanksgiving break. I was amazed that they were able to remember such a complicated routine.
“Some of them are so smart,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
Next year, many of the young dancers will go on to the next age group’s routine as the “Liberty Angels,” inspired by Lady Liberty.
“One of the things that’s really cool about Nutcracker is that it has progression in it,” said Pott. “The two girls who have the lead role are both girls who were in the production last year, but in the Chinese section.”
The youngest “performer” this year, Chien-Pott said, could be their 16-month-old daughter Sofia, whom she plans to carry in her arms during a street scene. Someday, Sofia could work her way up as the production comes back every year.
“We really hope it’ll be a holiday tradition in Jersey City,” said Pott.
“Jersey City Nutcracker” will premiere Wednesday, Dec. 14 at 7:30 p.m. There will be a 7:30 p.m. performance every night through Dec. 18 except Dec. 16, when the 7 p.m. show will be followed by a Nutcracker Family Party with food, drinks and activities. There will also be a 3 p.m. matinee on Sunday, Dec. 18. The show will be held at Grace Church Van Vorst, 39 Erie St., Jersey City. Tickets are $18, $10 for students and seniors. For more information, visit NimbusDanceWorks.org.
I will perform as Mama Cannoli on Friday, Dec. 16.