When you’re ballet stars like Michele Wiles and Cory Stearns, dancing the Nutcracker is as familiar a Christmas tradition as homemade gingerbread and tree decorating.
The celebrated American Ballet Theatre principal dancers—actually, Wiles just left in June to co-run a new company called Ballet Next—are going to perform as guests artists with the Goh Ballet’s Christmas spectacular. Both have been performing the classic every December since they were about eight years old. But a lot has changed over those years.
For Stearns, a 26-year-old talent who’s been featured in everything from Vogue to Kylie Minogue’s “Chocolate” video, performing the role of the Prince as a guest artist is a bit of a holiday from the intensity of being a principal of one of the top ballet companies on the planet. Expectations are particularly high for the New Year, as he prepares to debut as the lead in ABT’s Giselle. It’s his favourite role in the repertoire and one of the last of the big classics that he hasn’t tackled.
“For the whole rest of the year, when I’m not doing Nutcracker gigs, every single role is a ton of pressure. I’m constantly trying to get better and better,” he admits to the Straight, speaking after his rehearsal with Wiles, as they prepared for their appearance here. “Nutcracker is different because I’ve been doing it so long. It’s an opportunity to go somewhere, and wherever you go they appreciate you.” Asked if part of it is getting out of the Big Apple’s competitive scene, the affable dancer says with a laugh: “Everyone has an opinion in New York.”
Stearns, who hails from an athletic Long Island family, says his role as a guest artist with a young company brings back memories for him. The Royal Ballet School grad is again candid: “I probably had more fun at seven or eight than I do now—to be on-stage and not aware of the expectations of the people paying money to see you. When you’re not aware of that pressure or expectation, there’s just such a joy. When I go to these schools, they’re so excited to have these guest artists.”
The fact that the Goh’s students and preprofessionals will be able to share the stage with dancers of this calibre—and that Vancouver audiences will be able to see them—is a bit of a coup. Neither Stearns nor Wiles has ever set a slippered foot in Vancouver before.
In their time together at ABT, the two were often matched. In fact, Wiles, in her final appearance with ABT, danced Swan Lake with Stearns in June.
“We have so much experience together,” says Stearns. “She was one of my first partners when I was just starting to learn my first principal roles at ABT. She had to be very patient,” he says with a laugh. “My talent was very raw at best and even from the first rehearsal I was very nervous. She had to wait for my confidence to develop. But we definitely have a connection.”
But Stearns is being typically modest: the equally personable Wiles recalls their years dancing together at ABT with nothing but fondness. In many ways, their rehearsals this week for their Nutcracker appearance are like coming home again. “I have to say it’s a real pleasure working with Cory—he has such a natural instinct and a feeling for it beyond his years,” she says, speaking to the Straight in a separate, postrehearsal phone interview. She explains their openness and long relationship allows them to make corrections immediately. “We also like to play and joke!” she adds.
Leaving ABT at the height of her career was a bold move for Wiles, but it’s a challenge she’s enjoyed. Serving as co–artistic director with Charles Askegard (former principal dancer with the New York City Ballet and also Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell’s now-former other half), she saw her new Ballet Next make a one-night debut at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater on November 21. The company served up a mix of old and new, juxtaposing the cutting-edge likes of Mauro Bigonzetti and Jorma Elo next to the “White Swan Suite” from Swan Lake.
“I knew if we had a performance it would be real,” Wiles says. “A lot of people said to me they had an education seeing the classics next to the contemporary, and we had live music for the whole show. It was really crazy to hear them play the overture to Swan Lake at the Joyce!”
Wiles is clearly moving on to big new things, but it’s telling that the lithe, blond ballerina is still—for one more year, at least—spending her Christmas seasons bringing to life the impossibly delicate Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s a role she’s been obsessed with ever since she was a child, watching Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version on TV in her parents’ basement every holiday, putting her hair in a bun and mimicking the moves. She went on to perform as a mouse at the Joffrey Ballet, and then as Clara after winning a full scholarship to Washington D.C.’s Kirov Academy of Ballet at 10. The Fairy role later became one of her signatures at ABT.
For proof of the lasting appeal of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s classic, consider the fact both dancers have been performing it every year for decades, yet neither Wiles nor Stearns ever gets tired of the Nutcracker.
“The music, first of all, just grabs you,” says Wiles. “I’ve been doing it so long, but the music still inspires you to dance.”
“When I first start hearing it in the dressing room I start humming it,” concurs Stearns. “It’s a part of me now. I never get sick of it.”
The Goh Ballet presents The Nutcracker at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts from next Thursday (December 15) to December 18.