Nutcracker’s Little People: A Conversation with Priscilla Nathan-Murphy

Priscilla Nathan-Murphy is Principal of the Lower School at the Houston Ballet’s Ben Stevenson Academy. Nathan-Murphy is a key figure in getting the little ones ready to perform in Houston Ballet’s lavish version of Ben Stevenson’s The Nutcracker. Primarily, she helps prepare the clown and party children along with Houston Ballet Artistic Coordinator, Martine Harley. Nathan-Murphy is also a dancer and choreographer and recently performed with Amy Ell at DiverseWorks. She took the time to visit with me in the middle of Nutckracker season and her performance with Amy Ell.

DH: I was so impressed with the liveliness of the little ones. I understand you are the one responsible for such professionalism coming from these little ones. How long have you been working with children at the Houston Ballet?

PNM: I’ve been at the academy since 1985 and working with the children for 11 years.

DH: How many children dance in the Nutcracker?
PNM: More than 60 kids are involved in the Nutcracker, 16 are clowns and 20 are party children.

DH: How many different casts?
PNM: There are 2 casts for both clowns & party children.

DH: How long does it take to get the children ready?
PNM: I like to start working with the clowns 6 weeks ahead of tech week about two times a week. The party kids start much later in accordance to the company schedule. This year we started later than usual in mid-November. Mice and soldiers also begin 5 to 6 weeks ahead.

DH: What is the age range of the children?
PNM: The children usually range in age from 8 to 12. I try to hang onto some of the older cast from the previous year if selection allows at the time of audition. This always helps with providing some leadership as well as help with bringing the other new kids onboard. I must say that costume and height are factors as well.

DH: Do you have any funny stories about kids over the years?
PNM: Well really there haven’t been as funny stories as unfortunate moments. On opening night two children got their hats accidentally stuck together. And then you see a pair of Siamese twins first struggling but then keeping up with choreography. We’ve had shoes falling almost off. Once a child got hit my mother ginger and it caused quite a scare.

DH: How do they manage stage fright issues?
PNM: I try to prepare them as best I can while in the rehearsal process. They are performing with a company that is internationally known and therefore the caliber of performance and participation at rehearsals has to be at its best. I alert them to continue to stay focused when they get to the stage on their first rehearsal. Sometimes it’s quite overwhelming with the sets and props and the awe of the company members being right there on stage with them. In the event of something going wrong that they have to keep going and behave professionally. The endurance capacity to keep the high level of standard in performance is a hard thing to expect from little ones. It is definitely a character and discipline building experience and many will grow a lot from the experience.

DH: Did you ever dance in The Nutcracker?
PNM: Yes I did perform in the Nutcracker many years ago back in Singapore. The roles I did were Snow, Flowers, Chinese, and Arabian. It was fun and such a thrill. As I would imagine the same would be for the children. I was in my teens.

DH: Will many of these children seek careers as dancers?
PNM: Maybe a handful will continue. They show some potential but that is a far cry from actually seeing it through. A lot happens over the years. But there are a few right now who display a strong desire to be a “ballerina.” Now as far as the boys go well I think right now it’s an enjoyment and pleasure. Indeed the aura of it captures all of them.

I always hope that an experience like this, especially with a renowned company as this, does affect their lives somewhat. The experience hold the potential to solidify their inner most desire of being a dancer or a performer in the arts or at least give them an appreciation of what it is to be an artist, such as a professional dancer. It is also wonderful to be in awe of someone.

DH: Priscilla, it’s been wonderful to catch-up. I wish you well on all your dance adventures.

Photo by Jim Caldwell

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