Cracking the Nutcracker

The mice are on the march in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet's Nutcracker. Photo: David Cooper

This will be a busy week for Janice Messam.

She’s in charge of 76 young ballet dancers taking part in performances of Nutcracker at the National Arts Centre.

Messam will be in the NAC every night with the kids preparing them and then watching as they take the stage in Southam Hall.

“I’m an independent contractor for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet,” she told ARTSFILE. Messam was a dancer and ballet master with the RWB for 14 years before moving to Ottawa with her family. Since about 2000, whenever the RWB brings its version of Nutcracker to town, she’s on the job. She’s in close contact with the RWB’s artistic director André Lewis, who is also a friend.

The children are cast as party-goers, mice, Mounties, reindeer, polar bears and angels in the RWB’s Nutcracker. There are two casts of 38 each. The largest contingent are dressed as polar bears — 24 in all.

A rehearsal space is packed with Nutcracker hopefuls. Some 251 young people tried out. Photo: Siôned Watkins. Courtesy NAC Dance.

That’s a lot of kids but, Messam says, she’s not herding cats.

“The thing about dancers, even children: there is training involved in their regular classes. They get used to how to behave, to listen to the teacher and certain other expectations that serve them well in life.”

And when she has them in rehearsal it’s usually in small groups.

“Rarely do I have them all together.”

This is a packed week. Monday was a rehearsal for the children. On Tuesday, the children have costume fittings and they send time on stage alone and with the  dancers. Wednesday afternoon is the dress rehearsal for Cast A. The first performance is that night. Thursday is the dress rehearsal for Cast B along with their first performance that night.

It’s a real push to the stage. Even so there haven’t been any major disasters on her watch, Messam said. She recalled a time, 20 years ago, when one little guy had a nose bleed right before he went on stage.

“I just shoved some Kleenex up his nose and said ‘Off you go.’ He was fine but it’s one of his war stories.”

The children come from both sides of the Ottawa River and from ballet schools from as far away as Plantagenet.

The lead children often come from Ottawa’s The School of Dance. “I know the quality of the work they are capable of. There is a certain expectation of professionalism in the school. That’s not to say it’s the  only school like that but it is one I know I can count on.”

Messam does have a day job at the Inuuqatigiit Centre for Inuit Children, Youth and Families.

“It provides support for Inuit families and children in Ottawa. When I left ballet I knew would have to retrain and I decided I wanted to work with children. I felt passionate about that. I went back to school and did an early childhood education degree. One of my placements was at the Inuuqatigiit Centre. I fell in love with working with the community.”

Working on Nutcracker, though, keeps her in touch with ballet, something she has been connected with since she was four years old.

Ironically, Messam didn’t make it into a Nutcracker until her late teens with the Alberta Ballet. She danced in it as an adult with the RWB. She did want to be in the ballet as a child, so she knows how much it matters to those who try out.

“It’s one of the things I feel very strongly about when we do the auditions. We had 251 children show up this year. I always make a point of speaking to the children and their parents to say (the decision) is one person’s opinion of one day of their life. It doesn’t mean they are not going to be a dancer.

“I try to make sure audition process is as positive as can be because is stressful. I want to feel I have been ethical in the work that I have done. Who I know, who I am friends with doesn’t influence the choices I make. I’m looking at the kids for what they can do and what I think they are capable of doing.”

This year one of the young girls who made the grade didn’t have to audition.

Nine year old Viola Moschtaghi will be dancing in the Royal Winnipeg’s Nutcracker this week. Photo: Peter Robb

Nine year old Viola Moschtaghi arrived in Canada in 2018. She came from Berlin, Germany and is the eldest child of two German diplomats.

“She was an interesting choice for me. She’s a really bright little girl.” Messam saw Viola in class. “You could see a certain concentration and an almost analytical way of working. She was very thoughtful about how she did her class. She is also extremely musical.” Viola plays the cello.

Viola plays Dieter, the younger brother of the central character Clara, in Cast B of Nutcracker. The two casts split the performances.

“She is quiet, but when she gets into the character of Dieter she can put it on. You have to be a pain in the butt. When she is performing, it’s a different Viola.”

Ideally, Messam said, she would have liked to cast a boy as Dieter but that didn’t work out this year. Two girls stood out for the part and one was Viola.

Viola is definitely shy and soft-spoken. But she knows her role.

“I’m in the bedroom scene, the party scene and the battle scene,” she whispered. Ironically, the first time Viola will ever see Nutcracker is on the Southam Hall stage this week, she said.

Her mother, Ulrike, said Viola started dancing in Germany.

A scene from the RWB’s Nutcracker. Photo: Réjean Brandt

Viola says she likes ballet because “it looks pretty and I like the movements. It’s exciting.” As for the cello she likes to play: “I think it sounds warm and nice.”

Her mother says that she believes Viola changes when she dances.

“She is a very serious person, but when you see her dance, she is so happy. She opens up. Dancing is her way to express herself.”

Viola’s grandmother read the book that the ballet is based upon. It’s a German story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Viola says when she heard about the chance to dance in Nutcracker, “I thought I wanted to do it.” She also likes the idea of playing a rambunctious mischievous boy. She has an older brother in the Nutcracker and in real life “I have a younger brother. He is almost three. I don’t know if he knows what I am doing.” She also has a younger sister.

In her part, “I’m being silly and if somebody wants to kiss somebody else I make fun of them.” In the battle scene, she fights the mice.

She also hasn’t seen Southam Hall up close either but she says she’s not afraid.

“I would do it again. I would try to do it every year.”

It is clearly a fulfilling experience for the children. But it is also fulfilling for Messam.

“It’s awesome. I love it. When I was a dancer I used to roll my eyes and groan at Nutcracker, but now because I don’t do it as much, it’s a nice break. It’s fun to see the children succeed and find things they didn’t know they could do.”

The children’s enthusiasm also keeps Nutcracker fresh year after year, she said.

“The kids help everyone maintain their enthusiasm for the work. Even though it has been done a million times, it is always fresh for them.”

Royal Winnipeg Ballet presents Nutcracker
Where: Southam Hall, NAC
When: Dec. 4 to Dec. 8
Tickets and information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.