The lights go down, the overture begins, and in the following 90 minutes, visions of sugarplums, snowflakes, and angels bring the iconic ballet “The Nutcracker” to life. But before the Austin Symphony Orchestra plays that quintessential Tchaikovsky score for Ballet Austin’s annual production, nearly 200 dancers will put in over 100 hours of rehearsal to perfect each pirouette.
“It’s the longest run of shows we have all season,” says company dancer Elise Pekarek. To prepare for 14 public performances, Pekarek focuses on keeping her legs strong. “I try to do the elliptical or the jump board in the Pilates reformer to build up my cardio endurance. I also make sure to do exercises for my glutes and my calves to prepare for that long run,” Pekarek says.
A dancer since she was 4, Pekarek is performing in her ninth “Nutcracker” with Ballet Austin, and relies on Pilates to help cross-train. “On the reformer there’s a whole bunch of different ab exercises you can do with the straps and your hands,” Pekarek says, “Or Pilates mat exercises, the Pilates Five—I try to do that every day.”
For Orlando Julius Canova, his cross-training looks a little different. “When I first started CrossFit, people were like, ‘Your body control is amazing,’ and I’m like, ‘I’m a professional ballet dancer’,” Canova says.
Beginning with gymnastics when he was 9, Canova moved to ballet at 13. “Boys can start later as long as they’re coordinated,” Canova says, “The things that we do require a lot more muscle strength, and your muscles haven’t developed yet as kids.”
Canova looks to CrossFit to build his strength and activate his muscles—particularly legs, hamstrings, and inner thighs. “I feel like I’ve found a lot of new muscles that are important for ballet that I haven’t felt before,” Canova says.
While the long run of shows can be exhausting, the holiday season offers a nice light at the end of the tunnel, and maybe a sweet or two. “During ‘Nutcracker,’ because we’re doing so much, it’s a little easier to put some more carbs in there,” Canova says. “And because it’s the holidays, and we’re so fully dressed, it’s like, ‘Ah, I’ll have that cookie’.” It’s well earned.
Canova: “I wake up and I do CrossFit from 5:30 to 6:30. For ‘Nutcracker’ it really keeps me strong and focused. Then I come home and make myself and my boyfriend breakfast. I always have a good breakfast, like three scrambled eggs with spinach and turkey bacon.”
Pekarek: “I wake up and take care of two crazy dogs and then try to be in the studio 30 minutes before class starts and try to warm up and stretch. It makes a huge difference for the rest of the day if I can do any kind of stretching and warming up my hips and my feet and my back. Getting ready for ‘The Nutcracker,’ for the women it’s a lot of core work and a lot of cardio endurance.”
Pekarek: “Every morning we have a class from 9 to 10:30. We practice our turns and jumps and get ready for the rest of the rehearsal day.”
Canova: “15 minute break. I usually have an apple or some protein; a protein shake helps me get some fuel back.”
Pekarek: “We do a lot of group rehearsal until 1, and then that’s our lunch break. As we get closer to the show we will do a full run before lunch. I try to keep to eating pretty clean. I’ll eat yogurt in the morning and then lunch I’ll try to do a salad or quinoa; anything that’s too heavy at lunchtime makes the afternoon rehearsal really hard.”
Canova: “We rehearse from 2 to 5. It’s broken down by scenes. Then I teach in the Academy and the Butler Community School. I have a men’s program and I teach level six, seven, and eight of the Academy.”
Pekarek: “I usually teach [Pilates] from 5 to 8, Monday through Thursday.”
Canova: “I go to bed around 10 or 10:30, and it’s strict. If I do not, I will not wake up and go to CrossFit, so I have to stick to that bedtime.”
Pekarek: “When I come home, depending on how my body feels, sometimes I need to take an Epsom salt bath. I make dinner for me and my boyfriend and sit and try to do nothing for 20 minutes and then get ready for bed.”