by Joshua Maloni
Niagara Falls is not for everyone.
Especially in the middle of winter, when it's so cold you can see your breath.
But for the Greater Niagara Ballet Co.'s guest principal dancers -- Irek Muchalski (Toronto), Jessica Marguerite Stibick (Washington, D.C., area) and Tonya Milne (Waterloo, Ontario) -- Niagara Falls in December means one thing: "The Nutcracker." So, even though there's weather to dodge, travel arrangements to make, rehearsals, pictures, the odd interview here and there, and, lest we forget, holiday shopping that needs finishing (or beginning), Niagara Falls is exactly where these three professional performers want to be this time of year.
Prior to last weekend's GNBC's production of "The Nutcracker," Muchalski (Nutcracker, Cavalier), Stibick (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Milne (Snow Queen) sat down to discuss what the show, their roles, and a bevy of young co-stars mean to them.
JM: What do you like about "The Nutcracker," and about working with the GNBC?
Irek Muchalski: "It's very colorful and I like to be around this production. It is the best. I play almost every character before -- I danced in different companies. I started with Snow King, and after that I was Snow King, Russian, Arabian, Father. Many things. It's the music, too; it's fantastic. I can't get enough of that music. Tchaikovsky is a master of masters. I just never get bored -- the music and the steps.
"Plus, I'm not the youngest, but I still enjoy to dance."
Jessica Marguerite Stibick: "I think it's a really fantastic production. Everyone works together really well. That's very important when you have that many people on stage, that they really get along and work with each other to make it better, because you're only as good as the weakest person on stage.
"Everyone's friends; everyone works together."
Tonya Milne: "The best thing that I like (in) coming here each and every year is that the kids have grown up that much more, and I think that they like to see a familiar face with the guest artist. And backstage, I just enjoy and love being a kid myself, and they're always there to give you good luck hugs and tell you that you did wonderful. It just -- it really, really feels great in your heart to come back."
JM: And you get to wear a crown, too.
Stibick: "I enjoy performing. It's like my favorite thing to do."
Milne: "I love the crown, too. I can wear it for a whole weekend!"
JM: What do you like about your role?
Stibick: "Sugar Plum Fairy, it's a realty elegant role, which I enjoy doing. I like doing the elegant and very traditional ballet type of roles. The music's beautiful, and it really expresses the music."
Milne: "This year is the second year I was able to work with Irek. This year we knew one other as partners. This year we were able to make the choreography a little bit more challenging and that much more intricate. And I think we enjoyed our extra rehearsals together and just making it that much better together. And, hopefully it will come across to the audience that we've practiced a lot; that we have a good partnership."
JM: You've built a solid dance career. What do the younger dancers ask you, and what advice do you offer them?
Muchalski: "With the experience, I can correct them -- give them my point of view. It doesn't mean everybody will agree ... sometimes they don't. They listen to me -- most of them, anyways. My partners, sometimes they (don't), but that's a normal thing. That's what professionals do. Sometimes we argue, but at the end we're OK."
Stibick: "A of times they ask me particulars about the steps or about pointe work, especially. When they're younger dancers they like to hear about what it's like to work with the shoes, and to work with a partner, or to do the difficult steps. I just encourage them (that) it takes many years of practice, and patience, and really working hard on it."
JM: What do you think the audience takes away from these performances?
Muchalski: "The audience gets so excited and most of the time (we get) a standing ovation. That means they like it. I like it if they like it. If they like it, I'm happy."
JM: Something that disappoints me is that so many of the girls who've starred in this show as young adults have since stopped performing. Why has ballet - and performing on stage - remained important to you?
Muchalski: "That's sad. My ex-partners from this company -- I'm here almost 15 years (with the ‘Nutcracker') -- and there are some talented girls. They just, I don't know. They get burned, or overworked, or they treat that like just a hobby. And now, they finish university or whatever. They have different careers. In my situation, I started a long, long time ago. I don't know when to quit. It's hard for me to quit."
Stibick: "It's a really hard decision to make. So, it's not one that someone can make lightly, to decide to go into it as a career. Because it's a lot of hard work -- probably more work than your average job. And there's only limited time. And really the only thing you get out of it is that, if you love to dance, then at least you're doing what you love. That's why I chose to do it, is because it is what I love; it's my passion. That's why I decided to do it as a career."
Milne: "There's no feeling that you can describe when you take your bow at the end of a performance, and you bow and people applaud for your hard work and what you've worked so hard for. There's no feeling in the world that you can feel. And it's that moment that keeps bringing me back to the stage."
JM: What does it take to perform at such a high level?
Milne: "I think I'm like each and every dancer backstage. We all get a little bit nervous; a little bit of butterflies in our stomach. But, a couple years back, I had a really bad back injury -- to the point where I wasn't sure if I'd be able to dance again. So, every time I get up on stage, I don't take it for granted anymore. Because it's truly a gift to be out there, and to be able to dance and show my love to the audience and the people that will pay to come and be inspired by ‘The Nutcracker' and feel the Christmas spirit by ‘The Nutcracker.'
"So, a lot of practice, but I enjoy every minute of it."
JM: Talk a little bit about the craziness that is backstage. The audience only sees the poised and graceful performance on stage, but backstage it's kind of a whirlwind.
Milne: "I think it's all part of the show -- and probably a great part of the show, as well. When you come on stage, you're that character -- whether you're a flower in Waltz of the Flowers, or Chinese, or the Snow Queen, such as I play. But still, there's very much craziness backstage -- catching your breath, making sure you're on cue -- and I think it's a big part of the show. It's fun to be back there and enjoy it. But, I'm sure the audience enjoys much more the poised and graceful production."
JM: What advice would you give someone like me -- someone who is not a dancer, but I'm up there trying to do ... whatever. How can I make my performance more graceful?
Milne: "I think it's great. I think it's wonderful that you would get up there and volunteer to be up there and enjoy it, as well.
"Just enjoy it on stage. After all, it is a party scene. Go to a party and have fun, and make some good memories about it.
"You're doing great, though."