Since 2016, Houston Ballet has been performing artistic director Stanton Welch's version of holiday favorite The Nutcracker, and first soloist Tyler Donatelli has been a part of it since the beginning.
The dancer, who has risen quickly through Houston Ballet's ranks since joining the company in 2014 — having studied at Houston Ballet Academy and Houston Ballet II before that — this year dances the dual roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy.
These two iconic roles define ballet for many young dancers, and Donatelli is acutely aware of the impact she can make on the more than 70,000 patrons who see The Nutcracker each year.
She recently sat down with CultureMap to discuss her history with the ballet, which runs November 24-December 27 at Wortham Theater Center.
CultureMap: What is your history with this version of The Nutcracker?
Tyler Donatelli: I've played Clara every year since it debuted in 2016, and I feel like I've played every other role too! Snow, a flower, a soldier, the sugar plum doll — everything but the children. When I first started I was 19 and in the corps de ballet, then progressed to solos...the years do go by.
CM: What's it like revisiting this ballet year after year?
TD: I use it as a gauge to see how in shape I am! It's a good check-in with my body, to see how my stamina and technique are compared to the year before.
CM: What's it like dancing the role of Clara?
TD: She's such a fun role. I literally get to act like a little girl on Christmas! I do try to find new nuances each year and refine my technique — being so familiar with the steps, I really get to play with it and put focus on character development. We all work really hard to make sure that story is the central role in this ballet.
You know there are little girls out there seeing ballet for the first time, and this version of The Nutcracker, with all its spectacle and beautiful costumes, really opens the audience's eyes to how palatable ballet can be.
CM: And how is it dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy?
TD: I love doing Clara, but technique-wise I really love doing the Sugar Plum Fairy.
She's such a contrast — she is literally queen of the Land of the Sweets! — and I really like discovering how fairy-like I can be in that role.
She is known for being quite a difficult role to dance. Her pas de deux and variation are known to be long and hard to do, and there's a lot of pressure that comes with the role. With all those little girls out there watching, I don't want to get it wrong!
CM: What can audiences expect with The Nutcracker?
TD: There is just so much to see and the storytelling stretches across the whole stage.
It's like opening one of those picture books where there are a thousand things happening on one page. You can be looking at a dancer on the left, but the dancers on the right and center are doing something just as interesting. The more times you see it, the more you'll notice.
CM: What is special about Houston Ballet and Stanton Welch's version of The Nutcracker?
TD: The Nutcracker is a lot of people's entrance into ballet, and sometimes it's the only ballet they ever go see. I think this one sets audiences up to understand the principles of ballet: pas de deux, big group numbers, solos, etc. The familiarity of the story is nice, because it lets people focus on the dance itself and become more comfortable with that.
But all our other ballets are magical in their own way. Let The Nutcracker be your first ballet, but please don't let it be your last.
Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker runs at the Wortham Theater Center from November 24-December 27. Tickets start at $30, and can be purchased by calling 713-227-2787 or visiting the website.