Janine Kovac

Breaking Character

My mother always said that Ballet El Paso’s party scene was the best party scene she’d ever seen. Better than the Baryshnikov version on PBS and Pacific Northwest Ballet’s movie put together. Better even than San Francisco Ballet. 

“When you’re watching San Francisco Ballet, you know it’s going to be perfect. But with Ballet El Paso, you never knew what was going to happen. It was like a real party.”

It was true. You never knew if someone’s costume was going to tear or a piece of scenery would break. In 1982, the guy who danced the role of Clara and Fritz’s father packed his pipe with pot and smoked it onstage; the same guy spiked the party punch with vodka. Once, Drosselmeier didn’t show up to the party at all, and Fritz had to be the one to give Clara the nutcracker, only to grab it from her 32 counts later to break it.

I know. I was Fritz.

The first time I met the director of Ballet El Paso, I thought she might be a real live witch. Ingeborg Heuser didn’t look anything like her glamorous full-page portrait in the ballet programs, in which she’d posed for the camera on a fancy couch. Dressed in a full-length gown of linen and white lace, her hair was coiffed to perfection on top of her head like spun sugar. She had laughter in her eyes and a smile on her face that made her teeth look even. In her photograph, she radiated like a Prussian Countess. 

In real life, her green eyes were wild, like she could read your thoughts, and her red hair was more of a bird’s nest than a hairstyle. Her skin was like the leather of a cowboy saddle; she claimed she kept it smooth with a cream from crushed pearls she kept refrigerated for nightly application to her face and neck. She had the slow, lumbering gestures of a dinosaur mixed with the temperament of Joan Collins from Dynasty. She was not clumsy, exactly, but definitely nothing like the lithe, graceful Renée, Ballet El Paso’s principal dancer and my ballet teacher. It was difficult to imagine that Ingeborg Heuser had once been a soloist with the Deutsche Berlin Oper during World War II before fleeing to Italy to be a movie star. Dee Bee said that Ms. Heuser came to America when she married a U.S. serviceman from Fort Bliss, and claimed that when she was a little girl, she had danced for Hitler. 

Whatever her true origins, Ms. Heuser put Ballet El Paso on the map. In her decades of training students at the University of Texas at El Paso, her dancers had gone on to secure contracts with companies such as San Francisco Ballet, Boston Ballet, the Royal Ballet of Denmark, and even New York City Ballet. She was able to woo guest artists from American Ballet Theatre, Mexico City, and the Royal Ballet of London.

Ballet El Paso lived within the fine arts department, complete with two ballet studios and an auditorium, dressing rooms, a sewing room, a costume room and even a wing for building scenery. Later, when my own ballet career took me to Germany and Italy, I would learn that this structure was a European convention. Ballet companies trained and rehearsed in the same buildings in which they performed. Ms. Heuser’s position at UTEP as a professor and department chair gave her access to resources that allowed Ballet El Paso to flourish. 

I didn’t know any of this when Renée loaded my best friend Dee Bee and me into her rusty pink Carmen Ghia and drove us to rehearsal after our ballet class. It all seemed perfectly normal, as did Ms. Heuser’s volatile artistic temperament, everything mirroring what I’d read about in ballet books I checked out from the library. 

Our first rehearsal for the party scene was scheduled on a Sunday morning.

This was a problem.

We were not the kind of a family that missed church, especially for something as frivolous as ballet. But my mother knew that if I missed rehearsal, I would not get to dance, and that the next time I would not be cast for anything; reluctantly, she made arrangements with Dee Bee’s mother. 

Dee Bee’s mom drove us in her little orange Opal that looked like a Corvette. Dee Bee sat in the front seat, braiding a pot holder out of variegated yarn. I sat in the back reading a book about Maria Tallchief, one of the first prima ballerinas for New York City Ballet. Maria Tallchief was brown, like me. It sounded like George Balanchine, her director and husband, was just as hard on his star ballerina as Ms. Heuser was on us. 

On Sunday mornings the Fox Fine Arts building was deserted and dark. Ms. Heuser was always late for classes and rehearsals, so it was a relief to see David marching up the big ramp from the parking lot to unlock the doors to the studio. If David was in charge, not only would we start on time, we’d end on time, too. 

He began at the beginning: Clara and Fritz take turns looking through a keyhole, trying to see the Christmas tree their parents are decorating in the living room.

Of course, in this bare studio with dark brown cinder block walls and floor-to-ceiling mirrors, there was no tree. There were no decorations. No presents. There weren’t even any parental party guests. The grownups joined rehearsals later.  

The steps were easy, and I’d already learned most of them from watching previous years’ performances and rehearsals. But it was hard to pretend it was Christmas Eve. It was hard to look at your empty hands and pretend it was a sailboat, or to pretend you were playing a trumpet or beating a drum. I felt a silly trying to act. Dee Bee didn’t even have a nutcracker for me to break; she and the girl cousins cradled pointe shoes as their dolls.

“Look excited!” David scolded us. “It’s Christmas!” He had exactly six rehearsals to stage the party scene before Ms. Heuser came to examine his handiwork. 

On the day Ms. Heuser came to watch rehearsal, we knew our steps perfectly, yet she was displeased. 

“What are you doing?” she shrieked. “You are ruining my ballet!” In her breathy accent, somehow more French than German, the words came out “woo-ined.” Later Dee Bee and I would giggle about this, but not on that day. 

“You!” She pointed to one of the maids, a young high schooler not advanced enough to dance in Waltz of the Flowers and too tall to be a mouse. “You look like a pedestrian! Showing your backside to the audience? You might as well bend over and scratch it.” She dropped her arms and mimicked the teenager, making her look like a monkey, not a dancer. It was a cruel imitation and an exaggerated performance, and the girl clenched her jaw, determined not to cry. 

Ms. Heuser turned to direct her disappointment to one of the older dancers. “And you! Never bring a woman’s hand to your lips to kiss it. It means you want to go to bed with her. Always bow down to her hand.” She demonstrated with a low bow.

“Dancers! We open in one month. You look like you’ve never been on stage before!” She threw her hands up in disgust and let them fall to her side. We stood perfectly still.

That was a short tirade. Surely it was not over. 

Someone had chalked a Christmas tree on the cinder blocks on the back wall and from time to time, dancers added to it: ornaments, a window pane, a star on top of the tree. At first it was a way to be festive in this bare studio, but now our cartoon scenery just underscored our status as amateurs. 

After a heavy sigh, Ms. Heuser walked to the front of the studio. She knew we were hanging on her every word, looking for a chance to redeem ourselves. She milked the silence. Then she gestured for all of us to come closer. 

“Sit down,” she said in a soft voice. “Let me tell you what Christmas was like when I was a little girl.” 

Dee Bee sat as close as she could, as if to soak up Ms. Heuser’s words. I wanted to curry favor, too, but spitting distance seemed a little too close. I nudged further away. 

“The first thing you need to know, is that in Germany in the winter, it is so dark, it is pitch black by three o’clock in the afternoon. And it is so cold, the milk bottles that are left on the front steps freeze over. No one is outside. If you do go outside, maybe you have been invited to a fancy Christmas party—” She looked at our faces, transmitting the message: I am dropping a hint.

“If you do go outside, you are wrapped in a scarf and gloves and a hat.”

She hunched her shoulders and hugged herself as if attempting to keep warm. Then she blew into her hands and rubbed them together. Her performance was so convincing that Dee Bee and I shivered a bit. 

“When I was a little girl, the Christmas Eve party was at my grandmother’s house. All the children would be locked in a room upstairs. In the dark.”

Dee Bee and I exchanged glances. This explained a lot.

Ms. Heuser snapped off the light. The afternoon sun cast a shadow into the studio. It was just dark enough for her to make her point and just light enough for us to see. 

“The streets are filled with snow. If you look carefully out the window you can see who is coming to the party next. And if you listen carefully, you can hear the front door open, hear footsteps on the staircase. There, the maid is waiting for the signal to take the coats.” She stood tall and rigid, nodding to imaginary help. “And you know that the door will open soon. More cousins. Each time someone comes in, you pester them with questions.”

Ms. Heuser crouched. She lifted her shoulders, holding the sides of her face in her hands. Looking straight at Dee Bee, she asked, “Did you see the tree?” She paused theatrically. Pulling her hands into fists, she jumped in place. “Were there lots of presents?”

Her eyes shone and she paused before and after each new tidbit of information, giving us time to process what we heard. 

“You are so excited, you think you are going to—” Another dramatic pause. “Pee!”

Giggles and gasps rippled through the cast. Ms. Heuser said the word pee! It was as if she had cursed.

“And just when you can’t stand it any longer, the door opens!”

She held up a finger in warning. “It is the maid, and you know you are not to talk. You walk downstairs on your best behavior. Slowly.”

In our version, this was the part where the maids handed out candles and lit them onstage. We had to be careful to hold the candles upright or they would drip wax on the floor.

“First, we sing to the Christ child.” 

In a mix of narrative and choreography, this was our entrance into the living room. Slow walks, slow kneel. The orchestra sings with strings and harp, a swirl of magic. Three plucks and then, with the horns of the march, we get to greet our families. 

Ms. Heuser stood up and skipped to a couple upstage, two students from the university program good-natured enough to show up on a Sunday morning for extra credit and tall enough to be parents in the party scene.

“And you say, ‘Hello, Auntie. Hello, Uncle. Oh, yes. I’ve been very good this year.’ Make sure you curtsy with a big plié because you know it’s rude to just nod your head.” 

“And you—” she motioned to the university student and mimed putting her hands on the lapels of a jacket. “You say, That’s a fine cigar. Or maybe you say, I wonder what time it is.” She mimes taking out a pocket watch. “And then you nod and say, Fine watch.”

“There are two counts for each gesture. The people in the back of the auditorium need to be able to see you.” 

As she made her rounds about the studio, she assumed the identity of each party guest. But it wasn’t just her face that changed expressions. She captured an entire personality in her body and gestures. It was in the way she stood, the way she carried her weight. She leaned forward to show eagerness and leaned back to show elegance. After she’d posed as every character, she walked to the front of the studio and sat in her director’s chair. 

“Now,” she said firmly. “Let’s take it from the top.”

For Opening Night Dee Bee’s hair had been professionally styled with a perfect set of Nellie Olsen curls for her role as Clara. My hair was in curls, too, but hardly the same kind. As Fritz I wore a wig and my long hair needed to be coiled up in dozens of pin curls in order for the wig to lie flat.

A volunteer mom had been recruited to pin the soldiers’ wigs, but Ms. Heuser insisted on pinning the party children’s wigs herself. The counter was littered with boxes of thick pins from Germany and strips of tulle for pulling back stray wisps of hair. On another counter there was a pile of wigs in various conditions. Some looked like cute cabaret wigs, like something Liza Minelli might wear. Others looked like roadkill. 

When Ms. Heuser saw me, she shooed away the dancer in front of her. “Fritz always gets to go first. He needs the best wig.” 

She smiled and handed me a hairpiece as if it were a prize. I’d worn enough wigs with Ballet El Paso to know that it was indeed a winner with no matted tufts or weird cowlicks from poor storage. Using both hands on the front of the wig, I held it in place while Ms. Heuser pulled it over my head and for the next three minutes, I had her full attention.

Ms. Heuser pinned a wig in the same loving way a decorator might put the finishing touches on a wedding cake, except instead of icing she was armed with three-inch pins that did not bend. Each pin had to make its way through fake hair, the netting of the wig, the tulle of the wig band, and a pin curl before a final thrust into the scalp.

“If it hurts, you know it won’t fall off.” She smiled, and our eyes met in the mirror. 

Fritz was also the only party child with a real silk tie. I didn’t know if the audience could see the difference between silk and the black nylon strips the other boys wore, but up close, the contrast was obvious. The black silk was shiny and when Ms. Heuser tied it in a bow, the loops hung in perfect ovals on the lapels on either side of my blue corduroy jacket. 

“I learned how to tie a perfect bow when I first came to this country. I wrapped presents at J.C. Penney’s during the Christmas season.” 

She beamed at her handiwork, smiling so broadly I felt like the compliment was for me.

The stage manager, called into the backstage loudspeaker: “Place on stage, please. Places on stage.”

In the orchestra pit, Mr. Gibson raised his baton. 

And just like that, it was Christmas Eve in Germany.

During the last week at school, television cameras came to tape a news segment on Dee Bee, Ballet El Paso’s youngest performer to ever dance Clara. I stood on the sidelines, waiting patiently for Dee Bee to mention to the interviewer that I played the role of her brother, but she never said a word.

My face stung and my stomach clenched. 

“I’m the dancer who plays Fritz!” I wanted to shout. “And I’m three months younger than her!”

But instead I stood there, watching Dee Bee mug for the cameras. I pushed down the jealousy—a pulsing envy—until it hardened, like a jawbreaker. I’d be so embarrassed if any of the grownup dancers found out that I was jealous.

Nice girls are supposed to be happy for their friends. 

Under the hot lights of opening night, my itchy wig reminds me that I am Fritz and I’m allowed to feel jealous. In fact, I’m supposed to be jealous. The rock in the pit of my stomach shifts. I glower at Clara with her perfect yellow dress and its perfect bow and perfect curls until she feels my stare. 

I don’t care about Clara’s pretty dress or stupid curls. I don’t even want that nutcracker. I just don’t want her to have it. 

When she looks up across the stage at me, I wrinkle my nose and make a face. Slowly, like a vapor, the envy makes its way from my stomach to my heart. This is my stage, too. The musical trills mirror the envy unraveling in my belly. Holding the nutcracker over my head I can feel the eyes of the audience—they are watching me with a kind of intensity. I can feel it. It’s like a surge, a tidal wave. 

“Noooooooooooo!” comes a yell from the audience. A little kid. It makes me smile harder. This is my stage. My party. 


I slide into a kneel and bang the nutcracker on the ground harder than I thought possible. The head slides off from the rest of the body. The audience is silent, sucking in a collective breath. I wait two counts, just like Ms. Heuser tells us to. I can feel it again—another message from the audience. They want to see the damage. For a split second, I consider reacting with remorse or surprise. Maybe I didn’t really mean to break it. All the cousins on stage are still as statues. They are waiting to react until I give the cue. 

Look what I did! I stole the nutcracker and I stole all the attention

I look at Clara and smile. 

Oh. I’m sorry. Is this your nutcracker? my eyes say. I hand Clara the headless toy, waiting a beat before I give her the head. 

I’m in trouble now. Of course, I knew this moment was coming. I’ve been rehearsing this scene for three months.  

It will be an actual spanking, not a stage slap. On stage left, Drosselmeier has re-attached the nutcracker head and is wrapping the nutcracker with his handkerchief while Clara clasps her hands in anticipation. 

But really, all eyes are still on me. Herr Stahlbaum turns me around and bends me at the waist. He delivers three hard thwacks. They are harder than anything he’s done in rehearsal. Loud enough for the people in the last row to hear. 

“Yay!” screams a little kid, happy that justice has been delivered. 

I’m happy, too. I can still feel the audience. They are still watching to see what I will do next. 

Now that I have the audience’s eye, I’m not about to give it up. My job is to annoy Clara and I lunge for the nutcracker again. 

But this time, Clara grabs the doll from the littlest cousin and smacks me over the head with it. This is definitely something we did not do in rehearsal. Then she reaches over and with one swift tug, unties my perfect silk bow. 

From there, inspiration ignites through our collective brains, like a string of lights on the Christmas tree. All eight cousins get the same idea at the same time:

We have license to misbehave as we have never misbehaved in our lives.

Eight precocious and talented twelve-year-olds who always do their homework and always listen and obey. And right now we are supposed to be children who are completely out of control. 

Two cousins fight over a doll. One of the girls grabs a drumstick from her brother and threatens to poke him in the eye. Gone are the straight backs and sucked-in stomachs. The littlest cousin, staying in character, gives a stage-kick to the shin of the nearest boy. 

For three months, we’ve been rehearsing that when the maid comes and sees us acting unruly, we freeze until she calls the parents. But tonight we are having too much fun.

It’s so freeing. 

In our normal day-to-day lives, we know exactly where the limits are. We know at what point we will be counted tardy. We know how many problems we need to get right in order to get an A. Being good, being obedient, is like respecting an invisible edge and then getting praise for not going past it. 

But here’s what Dee Bee already knows: Being on stage is different from being obedient. The edge is so far away, in the distance. 

I reach over and grab one of Clara’s Nellie Olsen curls as she raises a foot and stomps on my toes.


Janine Kovac is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing workshops and curates literary events. Her memoir, Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home, was a semifinalist for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize and the memoir winner of the 2019 National Indie Excellence Awards. An alumna of the Community of Writers and of Hedgebrook, Janine was the 2016 recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship. She is writing a memoir about her experience dancing in the Nutcracker. Follow her on Twitter: @JanineKovac.