Ashley Lynn Sherman and Orlando Julius Canova have danced "The Nutcracker" many, many times — at least 600 between them, by their estimate. At the end of this season, both will retire from Ballet Austin. The current ‘Nutcracker’ run at the Long Center for the Performing Arts will be their last as professional dancers.
Sherman, who grew up in Warrenville, Ill., has danced for 34 years, 22 of them professionally. Canova, who hails from Laguna Niguel, Calif., has performed for 25 years, 19 of them professionally.
We sat down with the pair at Ballet Austin’s studios between rehearsals to talk about Snow Kings and Sugar Plum Fairies.
American-Statesman: So is it really time? Do you want more?
Sherman: I feel like there's a part of me that would love to keep doing this forever. Then there's my body, which is telling me that I can't keep it up at this pace. We are not a large company, so you have to be "on" every day. Everybody is "on" every day. And my body needs more time to bounce back.
Canova: This summer, Morgan (Stillman, a fellow dancer) and I and my family traveled to Europe. And in as many places as we could, we tried to take a ballet class. They would say: "You are so good, so in-shape." I'm not.
Then we met a professional dancer with Royal Swedish Ballet, and I told him I'm retiring. "How old are you?" 38. "That's so young!"
You see in Europe, once you are in a company for a certain number years, you are there until you are into your mid-40s. You start to slow down, and you are not cast so much, but you can collect that paycheck. And a lot of people take of advantage of that.
For Ballet Austin, sometimes I do corps work, sometimes soloist work, sometimes principal work. And it's hard for me sometimes, dancing next to someone who is 19, and I'm 38.
Am I ready for this? Yes.
How many Nutcrackers have you done?
Sherman: This is my 25th year, so maybe 300 performances.
Canova: I've also been doing it for 25 years. When you are a boy, they throw you in as soon as you are ready. I'd say 300 to 500.
What is your favorite Nutcracker role?
Sherman: I really enjoyed dancing Coffee (in Act 2) because of the mood. This is my 13th year dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy. This role takes the most dedication. It's a very hard role. It's also a lot of fun. I've had four different partners. Part of what has been so special, coming back to that same role, it's been kind of a touchstone for me. It stays the same. I change. Each year, I try bring something new to it.
Canova: This is my favorite year, because I'm doing the three parts I like best. In the first cast, I do Uncle Drosselmeyer. In the second cast, I do the Snow King. In the third, I do Coffee.
I have always admired Drosselmeyer, the character. I feel like I am him, the cool uncle bringing presents to the party. Some dancers play him dark. I want him to be more Walt Disney. You know, the person who is always going to be a child.
The Snow King, after my very first year here, I wanted to do that role. I asked for it. Stephen (Mills, Ballet Austin’s artistic director) said: "I don't see you doing that role yet."
Sherman: And here you are.
Canova: One year, I understudied it. I went on with Jaime Lynn Witts — she asked me to do it with her during dress rehearsal after her partner went out. Her partner was out for the rest of the run. Dancing with her was great, but I couldn't really enjoy it, because I was nervous the whole time.
Sherman: It's hard when you don't feel like something is yours and you are the alternate.
Canova: A couple years later, they cast me as the Snow King, and that was great. I've done it with four different partners. This year, it's Elise Pekarek, and she's the "spaghetti monster" (she gave herself that name), because she has beautiful long legs and is taller than me on pointe.
Sherman: It's a compliment to her long and flexible limbs.
Canova: As for Coffee, I've done all the males in Act 2: Coffee, Tea, Trepak, then also Marzipan. They switch me around.
Sherman: And now you can graduate from the Kingdom of Sweets!
What's your all-time favorite role?
Sherman: It was always Juliet. Growing up, I want to be Juliet someday. I love Shakespeare and the story. And I really did love dancing that role.
But it's actually changed to Giselle. When we did (the ballet of the same name) this last season, I had this experience of saying farewell. I danced it for the second time knowing I was going to retire. It was me putting down a piece of who I am as a ballet dancer. That was my last full-length romantic role.
I just have this warm place in my heart for the role. I understand why why all ballerinas talk about it. It's technical, but it's so fun. You are not suffering through the steps. There's this arc to the character. She's a live human being who goes through the range of human emotions in the first act, including losing her mind and dying of a broken heart. It's a deep and full experience.
Canova: Mine's different. As far as classical ballets, I've never been, "Oh, I love this role." I've always liked the more touchable, tangible human (contemporary) dances and how I can bring my life into a part. I always have to relate to the part I'm doing.
So for me, it was Hush, which I danced with Ashley in the "Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project."
Sherman: We did it so many times in so many places. You pick up where you left off. It becomes something more each time you do it.
Canova: Whenever we did "Light," there was a learning component. We went to the Holocaust Museum in Houston, and on the way back, I learned that my grandmother was dying.
Hush is Stephen's resolution to "Light." He said: "It's like you are dancing in heaven."
Sherman: Rather than ending the ballet with death, you encounter a survivor of the camps. So it could be like you are dancing in heaven, yes, or this is the life that the survivors built afterwards. They had to build their lives over.
Canova: I related it to my experience: I was my grandfather, and Ashley was my grandmother. This was their first meeting. He was finding her in heaven.
Sherman: You are going to make me cry.