On a recent Saturday, young dancers spill from the dance studios and dash through the hallways of Boston Ballet’s home at 19 Clarendon St. It is less than three weeks before the opening of the company’s beloved production of “The Nutcracker,” and the place is a beehive, abuzz with activity and excitement.
About 215 children will join the full company during the run of “The Nutcracker” Nov. 28-Dec. 31, and before one tiny foot steps onto the Boston Opera House stage, it takes dozens of hours of rehearsal for these youngsters, all of whom study at one of Boston Ballet’s schools. The children start “Nutcracker” rehearsals the week after Columbus Day. In addition to regular ballet classes, the kids in the party scene rehearse up to 10 hours a week. Dancers rotating in the starring role of Clara may rehearse 10-16 hours a week.
For most of the young dancers, “The Nutcracker” is the highlight of the year, a chance to showcase all their hard work. Fourteen-year-old Eliza French, in her third go-round as Clara, says, “You’re not just worrying about pushing technique. You’re finally in performance, so you can relax and let your artistry work for you. It’s really fun and magical. It helps you remember why you love ballet.”
At the hub of all this activity is Melanie Atkins, Children’s Ballet Mistress for Boston Ballet. A former soloist with the company, Atkins is in charge of preparing many of the children, including the Claras and nearly 50 children participating in the Act One party scene. In a rehearsal in sunny Studio 5, kids age 8 to 14 cluster in small groups, talking animatedly or going over steps. But at Atkins’s summons — “Ladies and gentlemen, settle down” — there is instant quiet. And when the music starts, artistry unfolds through choreography laced with sophisticated crisscrossing patterns and technically challenging jetés and tours en l’air. Atkins keeps it all moving with impressive poise and humor.
Atkins is one of five teachers involved in preparing children for “The Nutcracker.” The task demands attention not just to technical competence but dramatic conviction. “You’re getting presents, not a bowl of Brussels sprouts,” she says playfully as children act out receiving gifts. “Back then, you got gifts once a year, on Christmas. This is a big deal. You’re excited!” She runs the sequence again, and the energy is palpably ramped up.
In a collegial rehearsal with the girls cast as Clara, she tweaks the character’s portrayal of dismay. “It’s not like this,” she demonstrates, buckling over, miming racking sobs, hands over face. “How do we look when we cry? We don’t want to confuse crying with an allergy attack.” The girls laugh.
Despite the lighthearted tone, the kids know Atkins means business. French, who has taken weekly classes with Atkins since she was 9, calls her one of the best teachers she’s ever had. “She never accepts anything less than your best and she isn’t afraid to speak her mind,” French says. “She’s never mean, but always honest and helpful. You know her goal is to help you grow as a person and as a dancer. And she leads from example. She’s working just as hard as we are.”
As the rehearsal rolls along, Atkins glides from one group to the next with the unmistakable grace of a ballerina, tweaking moves here, suggesting dramatic details there. One moment she fluidly jumps into the fray to perform the adult male role of Drosselmeyer, the next she casually bends down to tie the errant lace on a small boy’s ballet slipper.
She says it’s all about a light hand and firm expectations, focusing on respect and teamwork. “My attitude is we’re here to have a good time and put something onstage, and it’s our responsibility to do it together. If you hold up your end, I’ll hold up mine, and the end product is going to be great.”
She adds with a laugh, “I often say I’m nice until I’m not nice. A couple years ago I had to put all the party boys in time out. But they came back later and were great. They just got a little overexcited.”
Born in Reading, England, Atkins and her family moved to Massachusetts when she was 8. She studied dance at the Walnut Hill School for the Arts, later joining Fort Worth Dallas Ballet and Miami City Ballet. She was a soloist with Boston Ballet from 2002 to 2009, when she got pregnant and decided it was the right time to retire. (She’s been married since 2007 to Boston Ballet soloist Sabi Varga.) Atkins then joined the company’s faculty, teaching and serving as Children’s Ballet Mistress, staging numerous children’s roles and teaching many of the children over multiple years.
She’s never looked back. “What I thought I’d miss most is being part of the rehearsal process and being in the theater,” she says. “But this is the best of both worlds. I’m really involved with what goes onstage and still feel part of that excitement. And watching [the children] mature and grow and seeing their personalities develop through ballet is really fun.”