Tales of the 'Nutcracker' kids

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Tales of the 'Nutcracker' kids
Sophia Yoo, 9, center left, and classmates before a class at the School of American Ballet in New York on Nov. 8, 2023. Sophia is making her “Nutcracker” debut as an Angel. “Dancing in front of so many people — like half of the world — it’s really important.” (OK McCausland/The New York Times)

by Gia Kourlas

NEW YORK, NY.- School was over, but the day was not. There was the walk to her Queens apartment; the greeting and tossing into the air of Pati, the family dog; and a meal of chicken and spaghetti to eat. All the while, Eliza Babinska charged along, energy spilling out of her body like sparks of electricity. She moves so fast that sometimes all you see is a mane of hair.

She quieted down enough to change into a pale blue leotard and stared ahead — obediently? grimly? — as her mother gathered her locks into a tight ponytail and got started on bun duty.

“Eliza hates this,” Vasilisa, her older sister, said with a giggle.

Minutes later, Eliza pulled on her coat, grabbed her bag and gave Pati a farewell squeeze before joining her mother, Julia, and Vasilisa for the walk to the subway to catch a train to Manhattan. In an hour and a half, Eliza would take her place at the barre for her evening class at the New York City Ballet affiliated School of American Ballet, transforming like a tiny superhero from a chattering, bouncing-off-the-wall free spirit into an unflappable, extremely quiet and dead-serious ballet student.

When Vasilisa first saw her perform, she said, “I was like, that’s my sister? I saw her face, and I was like, whoa.”

Even the way Eliza holds her head in class is imposingly regal. But she wasn’t there yet. On the subway, her chin started to droop, almost as heavily as her eyelids. The spark faded from her bright eyes. Finally, she closed them and collapsed sideways onto her sister’s lap.

Exhaustion is a real thing for the children dancing in City Ballet’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Leading up to the show, Lincoln Center becomes something of a second home, where classes and rehearsals can last until 9 or 9:30 p.m. Some have to eat dinner in the car or do their homework on the train. But the payoff is huge: They get to be in “The Nutcracker.”

Balanchine’s holiday masterpiece is more than a ballet, after all; it’s a reassuring New York tradition in troubling times. Over the past month, I got to spend some time with four of the 122 children performing in two casts, observing rehearsals and watching the grind of ballet class. With Eliza, who plays a soldier, I went to her home and tagged along on her commute; there was a costume fitting for Sophia Yoo, 9, who plays an angel. She and Victoria, 12, her sister who portrays a candy cane, are one of four sets of siblings in the production. And Theo Rochios, 11, in only the second year of his training, nabbed the part of the prince. It’s not only his debut; he’s a star of the show.

“The Nutcracker” means something different to each child in it. But everything is heightened for Eliza, whose family left Kyiv soon after Russia invaded Ukraine. “The Nutcracker” will be her first time on a stage since December 2021, two months before the war began. Her family has a video of that performance, to “Swan Lake.” She is the first dancer onstage, with others trickling in behind her. Her intensity, her artistry and her love of the stage is more than evident.

It doesn’t take much one-on-one time with Eliza, 11, who is learning English, to realize that she is a stage beast. “I was very, very happy,” she said, with Vasilisa, 16, translating for her. “It doesn’t matter what role I will get; it’s only that I am going to be onstage — to be someone, but on a stage! Just please give me that.”

Eliza Babinska, Soldier

Eliza began studying ballet at 5 and immediately took it seriously. After she left Kyiv, first for Croatia, her training continued, but the level there wasn’t what she was accustomed to. In January, Eliza moved to New York City with her parents and sister, a key reason being ballet. When pressed to describe what it is about the art form she loves, Eliza, seated at a counter in the family’s apartment as her mother and sister looked on, hesitated before speaking rapidly in Ukrainian.

Vasilisa, listening before translating, said, “Oh, I didn’t know this! She said that when she is dancing ballet, she feels very relaxed. All her body starts to dance, and she likes this feeling. And this feeling is only in dance right now. Very philosophic! She doesn’t think about other things. Only dance. After lesson, she’s like ahhh.”

The education of Vasilisa, a 10th grader with a passion for history, was another important reason Julia — an artist and graphic designer — and her husband, Oleg, who works as a warehouse agent and who has family here, moved to New York. Vasilisa also helps to escort Eliza to and from the School of American Ballet, where she has a scholarship; while Vasilisa waits, she does her homework.

“Here, you feel the freedom, to be honest,” Vasilisa said. “More than in Kyiv.” She doesn’t think about what people are going to say about her outfit, for example. “In Ukraine, people say, ‘Oh, my god, why are you wearing that? It’s weird.’ And you’re just like, ‘Maybe because I want to!’”

And the School of American Ballet has really floored them. “It was the best gift of her ballet career,” Julia said. “They pay for her education. They say, ‘We’re going to take her,’ and we didn’t have any connection with teachers; we didn’t know any people. It’s a different system between our country and America. Wow. Really wow."

What does Eliza love about the school? “Everything,” she said. “Beautiful place, beautiful location, perfect emotions, nice teachers.”

Theo Rochios, Prince

As children’s parts go in “The Nutcracker,” the role of the Prince is meaty. One afternoon in early November, Theo, alongside his fellow prince, Judah Horenfeldt, rehearsed the scene in which their character, through pantomime, relates his adventures to the Kingdom of the Sweets — notably, his battle with the mouse king.

Holding an imaginary sword, Theo pivoted and stretched out his arm, a move that frankly lacked force. Dena Abergel, City Ballet’s children’s repertory director, stepped in. “You take a big breath” — you could hear her lungs fill before she turned and stamped her foot on the floor, striking the air with a pin-straight arm. “That’s when you stab the mouse king,” she said. “You want to make sure you win.”

He tried again, this time with fervor. “Yes!” she exclaimed. “That’s much better.”

Theo, she said, is coachable. “He has a very eager feeling about learning,” she said. “He was able to convey a sense of authority in the casting that gave us the confidence that we would be able to shape him and teach him the role of the prince. I’ve learned over the years how important that is.”

Theo has spent time pondering what kind of prince he wants to be. “When I came to ‘The Nutcracker’ for the first time, and I saw the prince, that inspired me to become a dancer and to want to do ‘Nutcracker,’” he said. “So I want to be a prince that can inspire other young dancers to do the same thing and to maybe start dancing at SAB or to even get involved in ‘The Nutcracker.’”

He realizes he is a portraying a character very different from himself. He even considers how he holds himself. “I usually think bigger and bolder — holding my head up high and my chest tall and broad and making sure to do all the movements, like, very princely,” he said. “That element of it is hard because the prince is such a big, bold, regal, royal person. You have to fit into those shoes. And you have to portray that to the people in the audience that could be sitting super far away.”

Sophia and Victoria Yoo, Angel and Candy Cane

Last year, Victoria, who has danced since the age of 3, was a polichinelle, but she is excited now to dive into Hoops — dancer shorthand for the number in which she plays a candy cane. “I’ve had my eye on Hoops,” she said.

And Sophia is making her debut as an angel, which is more demanding than it looks. The angels — among the youngest dancers of them all — learn about choreographic patterns, how to count music and how to work together in a group to make a variety of formations. “That’s Mr. Balanchine’s genius, to teach the youngest children in the ballet all of these things,” Abergel said. “How to make a line, how to make a diagonal, how to make a semicircle, how to make a circle, how to move with your fellow dancers into diagonals. That’s hard stuff. It’s not something you do in class.”

Abergel also likes that siblings are in the ballet. “I love that it’s family-oriented,” she said, “and that it feels like ‘The Nutcracker’ is just an added part to that family’s holiday experience.”

Or is it? The Yoos, who live in New Jersey, weighed in.

Q: How is it, being sisters and being in ‘The Nutcracker’?

Sophia: Oh, I think it’s, like, nice.

Q: What about you, Victoria? Do you like being in the same ballet as Sophia?

Victoria: Mmmm. [Long pause]

Q: Speak, Victoria!

Victoria: Sometimes I see her during rehearsals. It’s kind of weird. But sometimes it’s nice. A lot of my friends don’t have their siblings during rehearsal. Yeah — it’s fun.

Q: Why did you hesitate?

Victoria: She’s kind of annoying.

Q: How do you feel about that?

Sophia: I think I’m nice, but sometimes I think I’m annoying.

Q: Why is ‘The Nutcracker’ such a big deal?

Victoria: It’s special because not all ballet companies involve children in their productions, and New York City Ballet kind of prioritizes children. I think that’s cool. It makes you feel special; like, sometimes, it’s a confidence boost. There are posters all over New York City. [Laughed] And to say, ‘I’m in that show with all the posters.’ It’s cool!

Sophia: I think it’s a very big deal, because everyone across the world knows about ‘The Nutcracker,’ and some people fly across the world to see it. And some people see it every single year, and it’s so important to them. [Sighing] Dancing in front of so many people — like, half of the world — it’s really important.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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