By Eva Kahn
Ashley Lynn Sherman and Orlando Julius Canova have performed in THE NUTCRACKER for nearly 50 years, combined. Both long-standing, well-loved members of Ballet Austin’s professional company, Sherman and Canova will take their final bows at the end of the season in May. Which means that this December, they will be performing in their very last Nutcrackers.
Often, people’s first exposure to ballet is THE NUTCRACKER, a holiday staple in ballet schools and companies across the United States. Not only is the dancing beautiful and the music timeless, but the story provides opportunities for everyone to dance, from 10-year-olds playing mice or party girls, to much-accomplished principals performing the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
From the decadent Land of Sweets to the magnificent snow scene (which is also a treat, as it never snows in Texas), THE NUTCRACKER is a holiday must for any ballet dancer and even after hundreds of shows, the magic doesn’t diminish.
Each year, Sherman and Canova look forward to THE NUTCRACKER as a bonding time for the company, and an opportunity to bring something new to a role they’ve performed dozens of times. We asked them to share stories from their Nutcracker careers, and how they are approaching their final shows of this enchanting ballet.
What was the first time you were ever in THE NUTCRACKER?
Sherman: The first time I was in THE NUTCRACKER I was 13 years old and I was a soldier. I was so excited to finally be in THE NUTCRACKER. I remember we had to wear these felt circles on our cheeks and we had to glue them on with eyelash glue.
Canova: The first time I was in THE NUTCRACKER I was 13 and that was in San Clemente, Calif. I was a party boy and a mouse. The cool thing is that the production toured to Laughlin, Nev., for a weekend and we performed in a casino hotel theater.
What is your favorite role to perform in THE NUTCRACKER?
Sherman: This is my 13th year doing Sugar Plum Fairy, and that’s definitely the role I always aspired to do. I’ve tried to use Nutcracker as a way to assess where I’m at. I take all my experiences from the season and am able to see how will I do the steps based on who I am and where I am this year. Because we have so many shows, I can get to that point where I can be comfortable being onstage and I know what to expect.
Canova: I am one of the only males who has done all of the Divertissements. I’ve also been a father and Drosselmeyer in the party scene, and the Snow King. It’s really hard to have a favorite. I love Drosselmeyer, he’s just so magical. Some people play him dark or mysterious or subtle, but to me he’s a big kid — he makes toys! He’s a happy guy, more of a trouble maker. I see him as that because that’s who I am.
After so many years of performing, I’m sure you have a number of fond memories and embarrassing stories. When you have completed your last show, which moments will you look back on?
Sherman: I definitely have some blooper stories. When I was doing the Pas de Deux from the Snow scene with Tony Casati (a former Ballet Austin dancer), there used to be a flying shoulder sit (a move where the woman runs toward the man and jumps, and he catches her sitting upright on his shoulder).
We went for it in the show, and I overshot it. I was falling backwards. In the moment, my thought was, I’m just going to abort mission. I’ll just stretch myself out into fifth position so that he’ll put me down. But he just kept going. He caught me like that and spun me around and then put me down when he was supposed to. We called it the flying bazooka lift.
The funny thing is that my parents saw that show. Over the years, they’ve seen my good shows and my really bad shows, they’ve been in the audience for all my bloopers.
Canova: One of the things that makes THE NUTCRACKER so special is that we’re in the theater for so long.
Truthfully, the theater is our home. We do class, we rehearse, and we hone our craft for the stage, to perform.
As dancers, we’re so co-dependent on each other. We leave home at 16 to 18 years old, we say goodbye to our families, and we inherit these new families. And we become very close, and I think during Nutcracker, we become even closer because we’re always together. It’s so special.
My favorite moment is right before the Pas de Deux in the Snow scene. I love that music. There’s something about being so terribly gosh darn nervous with someone that is your friend, looking at each other and thinking, “We’re going to do this together.” As cheesy as that sounds, I will miss that moment.
Are you approaching this Nutcracker differently, knowing it’s your last?
Sherman: I’m still working the same way. I’m trying to improve on what I did last year and the year before. This year I’m looking at how I’m using the music and my body rhythms to make sure I’m approaching things more effectively, so that I’m not wasting energy. In general, I’m always trying to bring something new — to focus on detail work with my partner, what things we can do that are smoother and easier so that the audience has a more enjoyable experience.
This whole season, I’ve been having a lot of flashbacks. It’s making me reflect on where this journey started. THE NUTCRACKER was the first ballet I ever saw. I saw kids my age on stage dancing in the party scene, and I thought, “I want to do that.” This is the ballet that inspired it all.
It’s kind of bittersweet. As dancers, we get tired of listening to Nutcracker. It’s fine when we’re rehearsing, but when we’re in a shopping mall, we’ll actually leave if they start playing the Waltz of the Flowers. So I’m curious to see when I’m not dancing, if it will be the same, or if I’ll hear THE NUTCRACKER and start dancing in the mall.
Canova: I don’t think I’m approaching it differently. I want to work hard and look good until the end.
This year my partner for the Snow scene Pas de Deux and Coffee is Elise Pekarek. Both these roles are very difficult partnering wise, and en pointe, she’s a little bit taller than me, and she’s very long. Sometimes, it just takes more communication. We have to try things a lot more, we have to work just a little harder to make transitions and things look smoother. It’s my last Nutcracker, but I can’t think of it as easy. I find myself working harder in the back figuring things out so that when we do perform on stage, it’s that much better. No slacking!