For many people, the holiday season wouldn't be complete without a trip to see "The Nutcracker." The ballet made its debut in San Francisco 70 years ago. For the last 15 years, San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Lorena Feijoo has had the starring roles as Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy.
Feijoo pirouettes and leaps in a black leotard and tattered practice tutu as the company pianist plays Tchaikovsky in the background. She's practicing the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy." As a ballet student and dancer in Cuba, Feijoo had never performed "The Nutcracker."
"All of the years that I was trained and raised in Cuba, we didn't have 'The Nutcracker' at all. It was nonexistent," Feijoo says. "Then I went to work in Europe, first when I left the country, and it was not very popular there either. Then I came to the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago and it was my first 'Nutcracker,' which was kind of rare for a ballerina. Because most of the ballerinas today, since they are little kids, you get involved into 'The Nutcracker.' So, for me it was introduced into my dancing career and my life quite late."
Feijoo had performed the grand pas de deux — the duet shared between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince — in Cuba. But dancing the lead in her first full production was quite special.
"It was so exciting being in the Joffrey for the first time with this beautiful production, just full of colorful costumes and beautiful crowns with crystals, and almost like living a dream that you had," she says.
Feijoo says the holiday spirit in Cuba isn't the same as the U.S. "Well, the holidays in Cuba, the winter holidays, first of all, we are like a summer country. So that’s already hard, like there’s no snow. Christmas takes a different, I think very different, approach because we are a communist country, still. The whole idea of Santa and a fantasy is not very much encouraged."
At some point after Feijoo left, the National Ballet of Cuba started performing "The Nutcracker."
"As 'Nutcracker' as a ballet concept grew bigger and bigger in the entire world, I think we have also acquired that," Feijoo says. "So the last time I was there, I had the chance to sit down and watch the 'Nutcracker' production. And it was very intriguing to me because I was like, 'What are they gonna do?' We’re not big on this one, we really don’t — it’s not a tradition for us and it was beautiful, because I think they really fed from all over the world productions. They took a little bit from everything."
For dancers, foreign or not, the holiday season is a time of hard work.
"We celebrate Christmas by doing 'The Nutcracker,' " Feijoo says. "… It's tough because you want to be gathering with the people in your country, doing the things that as a little kid were accustomed to you -- and you can’t. You’re here to perform and to entertain other people. In the beginning it's a little bit of a shock. And as years go by, you adapt and you understand that this is your life and this is where you have chosen to live and that’s how it goes. And there’s beauty in it, too. There is a great upside to celebrating Christmas somewhere else," she adds.
But it never gets old, Feijoo says, because it's always a special experience for the kids.
"Although dancers do this production every year, the kids really make the difference. They really bring the best out of you when you listen to the music and you are surrounded by them and you see their little faces illuminate because this is like magic to them," Feijoo says. "All of a sudden, you understand that it’s worth it."