Rats! And mice, dolls, princes, fairies, giant ginger mothers, candy canes and snowflakes …
No, this is not some weird hallucination after having too much eggnog at a Democratic Christmas soiree. It’s the return of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.” Once again, Pennsylvania Ballet raises the curtain on another beautiful production of the holiday favorite (and a tradition in our house).
By the way, here are some fun facts I found on Wikipedia about the classic: OK, as you probably know, the music was composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky and the libretto was adapted from E.T.A Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” by way of Alexandre Dumas’ (also responsible for “The Three Musketeers”) adapted story “The Nutcracker.” It premiered Dec. 18, 1892, on a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera “Lolanta.” The original production was not a success, but the 20-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. Hoffmann’s original tale contained a long flashback story within its main plot titled “The Tale of the Hard Nut,” which explains how the Prince was turned into the Nutcracker. Personally, I think they should have kept that title …
But I digress … I had the chance to speak to one of the ballet’s corps members, Jack Sprance. A relative newcomer, Sprance began training in 2010 at the Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts. He trained with the Boston Ballet, performed with the company in “Swan Lake,” “Cinderella” and “The Nutcracker,” and had roles in “Bayadere,” “Giselle” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Here in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection, he has performed with the Pennsylvania Ballet in Angel Corella’s “Don Quixote,” Christopher Wheeldon’s “For Four and Rush,” Ben Stevenson’s “Cinderella,” Balanchine’s “Western Symphony” and in the world premiere of Matthew Neenan’s “Somnolence.”
PGN: Tell me a little about yourself.
JS: I was born in Ovieda, Fla., then we moved to Connecticut when I was about 2. I started ballet when I was 13 at the Nutmeg Conservatory and three years after that I was accepted into the trainee program at Boston Ballet, which was a year-round program so I moved to Boston. In two years, I completed the training and, when I graduated, I was offered the job here with the Pennsylvania Ballet! I joined the second company and after a month I was promoted to apprentice. I spent that first year and another on top of that as an apprentice, and this is my first year with the corps.
PGN: Wow. That’s a lot for someone who’s only 21 years old. From your Facebook page, I get the impression that you’re a momma’s boy …
JS: I am! But she actually passed away in 2015, that first summer when I came home from Boston.
PGN: Tell me a little about her. What’s a fun memory?
JS: When we would drive, she would always drive in just one direction so we’d always end up lost. Instead of turning anywhere, she’d say, “Oh let’s just go a little bit further straight ahead!” We’d drive through the woods and come out the other side in some random town and then have to find our way back.
PGN: I’m guessing this was pre-GPS.
JS: Oh yeah, I was always like, “Oh God, here we go!” It was always an adventure.
PGN: That’s hysterical. So what did the folks do?
JS: I was homeschooled from second grade on, so my mom was my teacher and a homemaker, and my dad sells power generation for Siemens.
PGN: What was the first dance performance that made you think, That’s for me!
JS: I used to watch my sister dance. I’d watch her performances and then she’d teach me, which is how I got a little bit of a head start, which I needed because I came to dance late. The first professional performance I ever saw was when my mom took me to see the Boston Ballet. They did “Don Quixote” and it was the first time I thought, Hmmm, I could do this as a career.
PGN: You said that you started dancing late. What did you want to be when you grew up?
JS: A pilot. I actually still do. It’s always been my dream. I’m taking college courses right now to keep my brain fresh so that when it’s time to switch careers, I’ll be ready.
PGN: Describe the place you come from.
JS: As a kid, I loved where I grew up in Connecticut. It was a little isolated, but it was beautiful. There was so much space around us, it felt like I lived in a park.
PGN: Were there a lot of critters around?
JS: Oh yes, a little of everything: bobcats, deer, groundhogs and a lot of black bears. One time there was a bear in the front yard and we were all staring at it through the windows when my dad said, “Did anyone close the garage door?” We all ran out and there was a bear in the garage going through the garbage!
PGN: Oh my! So did you have pets growing up?
JS: Oh yeah, I had a yellow lab named Buddy — the sweetest dog in the world — and now I have a Yorkie named Bentley. He’s 5 pounds, a big difference between my first dog and this one.
PGN: Bentley, as in the luxury car?
JS: [Laughs] Yes, I love that car. He was named after it.
PGN: So you live in the big city now. What’s it like for you?
JS: I’ve been here for a little over two years and I love this city. It’s beautiful. They just need more grocery stores! I live near the Convention Center and there’s really not anything around there. I have to truck over to Trader Joe’s for cereal.
PGN: Tell me about the role you’re playing in the upcoming production of “The Nutcracker.”
JS: I’m playing a lot of roles. I’m doing the soldier/doll in the first act. I’m doing Tea, who is the Chinese dancer, and the lead candy cane, which is part of the “Russian Dance.”
PGN: Is that the one where you have to jump through a hoop?
JS: Yes, it took me a few days to figure that one out. It was hard.
PGN: I understand that you won the gold medal in the Connecticut Classic Competition, which is kind of like the Connecticut Olympics for dance.
JS: Oh gosh, that was a while ago. It’s also where my stage fright began. Competitions are always very daunting for me. I actually locked myself in the bathroom for that one and wouldn’t come out. They eventually talked me out and I performed and ended up winning! So it worked out, but it was very traumatic. That’s where I met one of the other dancers here at Pennsylvania Ballet, Katie Manger. She’s from Connecticut and had won it the previous year.
PGN: I’d think winning would have ended your stage fright, not kicked it into gear.
JS: You would think so, but I was so closed down and in my head that I associate all performances with that feeling. It’s much better now, but I still struggle with the butterflies waiting to go on.
PGN: [Laughs] So this time of year, do you go into fits when you hear that “Nutcracker” music?
JS: Yes! It gives me anxiety every time and they play it everywhere! In malls, in commercials, there’s no escaping it! But I love dancing the Nutcracker, I really do. One thing that’s cool here, we do sensory-friendly shows, where we welcome children and families with a wide range of sensory, learning and communication differences, including autism. We do different things to make them feel comfortable. The houselights don’t go down all the way, they can move around, make noise and not constantly be shushed or taken out. If they do need to leave, we have areas they can decompress with help from a trained staff.
PGN: That’s neat. What was your biggest mishap on stage?
JS: Knock on wood, nothing big so far. Not here, but I’ve slipped to the point that I heard the audience do an audible gasp. There are also the times when your nerves get the best of you and you lose your concentration and forget where you are in the choreography and you’re trying to remember what’s next. Because the music is live, it’s pretty unforgiving. I actually did that in a show once. I remember being on stage and thinking, Oh gosh, what’s next? But you just use visual and music cues to figure it out.
PGN: Speaking of figuring it out, when did you come out? Was your mom still alive?
JS: No, and I never actually came out to anybody. After I moved to Philadelphia, I started seeing a guy and that was it. I think everyone knew anyway, even my mom. I come from a very gay-friendly family; they just didn’t want to pressure me to come out before I was ready. I’m grateful that I pretty much had it easy. Also, the industry I’m in is very gay-friendly, so I’m lucky in that sense too.
PGN: So you’re 21. Was your first gay bar here in Philly?
JS: No, it was a bar called The Machine in Boston and on Friday nights they had an 18-plus night, so I was there legally! It was quite an experience. I haven’t been able to explore much of the Philly scene yet. I went to Boxers once and to Woody’s but it was so crowded I couldn’t move.
PGN: How do you stay healthy at this time of year? It must be a big concern.
JS: It is, a lot of hand sanitizer. And you try to eat healthy, which is tough because often after a long day of rehearsals and shows, the last thing you want to do is come home and cook a healthy meal. I also have a major sweet tooth, which doesn’t help!
PGN: So when people come to the show, instead of flowers they should bring candy?
JS: Yeah, I would love that. [Laughs] Throw it right onto the stage!
PGN: Ha, I see the headlines now: “Breaking news: Prima ballerina knocked out in freak Whitman’s Sampler accident!” What’s a false stereotype about dancers?
JS: I think people have an image of the dance world being cutthroat, that glass-in-the-slippers portrayal, but we’re actually very close as a unit. We are each other’s competition but I’ve always found that I could go up to anyone and ask, “Hey, can you help me with this or that?” and they’re always willing. We’re not as “Black Swan” as people might think!
PGN: Who took you under their wing here?
JS: Jermel Johnson and Oksana Maslova. They’re both dancers I have great respect for, and I feel like it’s mutual. I’ve learned a lot from them.
PGN: I guess the other nice thing about being with the company is the security. You get a regular salary and health care, etc.
JS: We’re contracted and every year they decide whether they’re going to renew or not. It usually happens right after “Nutcracker,” so it’s a little scary this time of year. This is my third year, and I love Philly and the company so hopefully it will continue. I just bought some furniture for my apartment too!
PGN: You’re being polite here, but I read some of your old posts and you have quite the twisted sense of humor. Where do you get that?
JS: Probably my sister. She could do anything and it would make me laugh. Also, before I did ballet, I was in musical theater; everyone in that genre has a dark sense of humor! And some of it comes naturally!
PGN: OK, let’s go there with some randoms. On a scale of one to 10, how well do you sing?
PGN: And yet you were in musical theater? What was your craziest moment on stage?
JS: We were doing “Seussical the Musical” and there was a bathtub scene. I was singing in the bathtub and they had bubbles coming out from behind my back and then I had to go down a slide. Well, my back was so slippery from the dish soap that they were using to make the bubbles that I flew down the slide so fast I almost launched into the audience! I ended up landing on my butt.
PGN: What’s one thing you refuse to pay for?
JS: Water! It’s ridiculous!
PGN: Describe your perfect partner.
JS: Someone who looks like, acts like, sings like and is Ariana Grande.
PGN: You’ll have to fight me first. If you could go back in time to talk to yourself, what would you say?
JS: Don’t do that!
PGN: What are the five most important things you would include in your things-to-do list?
JS: Get bitten by a shark. Fly a plane. Get bitten by a snake, which I’ve done. Get my floor pointe, done. Get to name a new species of bug.
PGN: What would you take as your “Survivor” items?
JS: Some matches and a boat.
PGN: Pet peeves?
JS: When someone doesn’t wash their hands after they go to the bathroom.
PGN: What’s the first thing you do when you wake up?
JS: [Laughs] I normally eat lunch.
PGN: And back to something serious. What does it feel like to let loose and leap across a stage?
JS: When you’re comfortable with a role, it’s amazing. This is my third year doing the roles that I’m doing in “The Nutcracker.” I know them so well that I don’t even have to think about the choreography; that muscle memory kicks in and you just soar. It’s really freeing, the greatest feeling in the world.
Pennsylvania Ballet performs “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” through Dec. 31 at Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St. For more information or tickets, visit www.paballet.org.