Michael Howerton will perform the role of Herr Drosselmeyer for the last time in this season’s production of The Nutcracker. We sat down with him to discuss his dance career and to learn what portraying Herr Drosselmeyer has meant to him.
How old were you when you first auditioned for The Nutcracker and what was your first role? How did you become interested in The Nutcracker?
MH: I was 8 when I first auditioned for Nutcracker and my first role was first act party scene boy (4th family – originally we called it the “sneezy” family, because in the prologue, one of the kids would sneeze on a musical cue and Mom would come and tend to her with a tissue. It’s now the “late” family).
What drew you to classical ballet and how old were you when you first started dancing?
MH: My Mom actually enrolled me in ballet when I was 7 years old, because I was terribly uncoordinated. I was always running into things or falling, etc. I took both ballet and tap and my Mother made me choose one. I was drawn to ballet originally, because I loved the challenge and discipline it provided. Later, I came to love the escape that it provided from my everyday life (I was bullied a lot as a teen) and eventually it was the artistry/expression and the rush from performing on stage that made me want to pursue a professional dance career.
Describe your professional dance career.
MH: I have danced for many local dance companies. San Jose Dance Theatre was my first classical ballet training company and also my first paying, professional dance position. I also performed with Palo Alto Ballet, Western Ballet, Peninsula Ballet Theater and Ballet San Joaquin. I made the change to contemporary and modern dance in 1983 and I danced with Margaret Wingrove Dance Company, where I have held many roles, ranging from principle dancer, choreographer, company teacher, Rehearsal Director and Artistic Director of the company. I also performed with Mark Foehringer Dance Project of SF. I have been fortunate enough to perform around the world, in places such as New York, London and Aruba, among others. Throughout my dance career, I have also maintained a full-time career in the Procurement industry and I currently work for Genentech, Inc. in South SF.
How many years have you been performing in The Nutcracker?
MH: I have been performing in The Nutcracker off and on since 1970. It has become synonymous with the holiday season for me. If I’m not performing in The Nutcracker on a certain year, I have to at least see a live performance. It’s not the holiday season to me, unless it includes a Nutcracker performance.
What was it like training with SJDT founders Paul Curtis and Shawn Stuart? Shawn was the previous Drosselmeyer. What was it like when he passed the role down to you?
MH: Training with Paul and Shawn was really the turning point in my dance career. They were both such supportive and inspirational role models to me when I was growing up. Both were father figures to me and they really instilled in me the work ethic, artistry and respect of dance as an art form. I learned so much from both of them in so many areas. They are also responsible for introducing me to contemporary and modern dance, which only increased my dance vocabulary and escalated my love of dance. When Shawn told me that he wanted to pass the role of Drosselmeyer down to me, I felt a lot of different emotions. I had been watching Shawn dance that role for so many years and even as a little boy, I used to dance behind him in the back of the studio, emulating his every move. I absolutely loved that role and always hoped that someday I would have the chance to perform it. So of course I was thrilled when he asked me to take it over, but with the role came a lot of responsibility. Shawn originated a specific portrayal of Drosselmeyer and I wanted to be sure that I kept the integrity of role and do it justice, but most of all, make Shawn and Paul proud of me for carrying on the legacy that they created. I have been performing Dross since 1992 and although I have made the role more of my own throughout the years, I always stay true to the character that Shawn created and feel an immense responsibility and connection to it. I hope to pass all the nuances of the role to the artist that takes the role from me and I hope I have inspired other young dancers that have watched me perform the role of Drosselmeyer throughout the years.
What are the most memorable moments you have had performing in the ballet?
MH: Gosh, there are so many… But the most memorable roles and the ones that either shaped or inspired me, when I danced as Nutcracker Prince (it was my first major role in a ballet), Snow Prince/King (it was my first principle role and I danced it for 6 years with SJDT) and obviously Drosselmeyer. I’ve had the pleasure of dancing with so many wonderful partners or performers and I’m very happy to say that I am still very close to, or in contact with most of them. We all have lots of funny situations that have happened either on stage or in the studio that we still laugh about to this day. Such great memories!
What were some of the greatest challenges you had to work through?
MH: Good question! Well, my fear of heights is one that springs to mind. As you know, Drosselmeyer loves to fly, but what you may not know, is that Mike does NOT. So I do have anxiety about flying (and hovering in the air above the stage for so long…). But I’ve gotten used to it and honestly, when I’m in ‘Dross mode’ I’m really so into the role that I don’t really think about it that much. I think another challenge that I’ve had to work through, is keeping Drosselmeyer as true to Shawn’s original character as possible, while still making it my own and also continuing to keep it fresh. I never want it to look like I’m just going through the motions. I transform into Drosselmeyer, each performance when the final notes of the opening overture finish, leading into the music for Drosselmeyer’s first introduction to the audience. And until that final moment when he blows a kiss to Clara and flies away, I try to maintain his persona.
Drosselmeyer is an iconic role. How do you personalize this character and what traits do you like to emphasize in your portrayal of him?
MH: Drosselmeyer is a demanding role, because there are so many layers to him. While he’s mysterious and intense, he has a warmth and loving side to him as well. I really try to portray him as this elegant, magical, mysterious creature, but hopefully not scary to the other characters in the ballet (or the audience). I want him to appear intriguing, but not conventionally accessible (laughs out loud). It’s a delicate balance.
How does performing a lead role like Drosselmeyer differ from dancing a classical role like the Snow King?
MH: Having done both roles, I can tell you that they are SO different, but each demanding in their own ways. Drosselmeyer is a difficult role, in that it takes a strong actor, not just a dancer to make it successful. If you have a dancer that doesn’t have the acting skills or depth to bring Drosselmeyer’s character to life, then the story of the Nutcracker won’t read to the audience. Drosselmeyer requires the ability to capture the audience and command the stage every time he’s on. Alternatively, Paul Curtis’ version of the Snow pas de deux, is probably one of the most technically difficult and physically demanding that I have ever danced. To be able to perform this complex pas de deux and make it look effortless and beautiful requires a lot. So, each role is challenging and rewarding in different ways.
Aside from gifting Clara in the party scene the Nutcracker doll, Drosselmeyer essentially carries the entire story of the ballet. Do you have a favorite scene or trick to perform?
MH: I absolutely love Drosselmeyer’s entrance to the party. It’s definitely my favorite moment. A lot of people don’t know this, but the music where Drosselmeyer arrives at the party is actually written into the score. So when I see a production where they don’t have Drosselmeyer enter during that music, it’s always odd to me. I also love Drosselmeyer’s pas de deux with Clara and the transition scene that follows. I think it’s one of the most beautiful, exciting and visually stunning transition scenes I’ve seen in a Nutcracker production.
What advice would you give aspiring dancers and artists regarding achieving their dreams?
MH: I would tell them to follow the things that they find passion in, find things that inspire them and most of all, MAKES THEM HAPPY. I would also tell them that even if they don’t end up with a full-time job in a professional dance/theater company, that doesn’t mean that they are any less a dancer/artist or any less talented. There are a lot of incredible dancers/artists that don’t get into major companies and there are only so many big-name companies & performance opportunities available (and LOT of other dancers/artists vying for them). Don’t ever let another dancer tell you that you are not a ‘real’ dancer if you don’t have a 9 to 5 dance job. Dance is a personal passion and religion that gives so many of us life. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.
The next Drosselmeyer is going to have big shoes to fill from the incredible legacy you have achieved with the role. How would you pass this role on to the next dancer? What artistic knowledge and direction passed down to you from Shawn will you also pass on?
MH: Thank you! What a nice thing to say. I hope that I have inspired other professionals that would like to inherit the role or young dancers that aspire to someday perform the role of Drosselmeyer, like I did. I would love the opportunity to personally set the role on my successor and coach them, in order to maintain the legacy that Shawn created. The direction that Shawn passed down to me, is that he wanted someone to take on the role that loved it as much as he did and wanted to see his version of Drosselmeyer live on. He also told me that I would need to make it my own, which I definitely have. But I have always kept the spirit of Shawn alive through my portrayal of Drosselmeyer and I would like the person that takes it over from me to do the same.
What is your favorite scene of The Nutcracker?
MH: It would have to be the snow scene. To this day, when I hear the music at the beginning of the snow scene, it brings tears to my eyes and I get a lump in my throat. I know I’m biased, but in my opinion, Paul & Shawn’s snow scene cannot be matched. I’m sure there a lot of SJDT alumni that would agree…
Describe the SJDT 51st production of The Nutcracker in one word.
I am so honored to have had the opportunity to perform in SJDT’s Nutcracker for so many years and in particular, in the role of Drosselmeyer. SJDT has been, and always will be a very special part of my life, not just because of Paul and Shawn, but because of all of my treasured SJDT family that I have had the privilege to perform with and forge life-long friendships with over the years. I have so many great memories and have loved every minute of this journey. I want to share a special thank you to the Board of Directors (past and present), for keeping SJDT alive through all of the many changes and tumultuous periods of the organization, to Kris, Kim, Ann and Sarah (for keeping the core family together), to Beth, Jen and Bronweyn for being constant proponents of SJDT and for their boundless support. And of course, Linda, our Artistic Director, who bravely stepped up to the challenge of keeping Paul and Shawn’s dream alive, through all of her tireless direction, teaching and love of SJDT and lastly, to all of the students and dancers in the SJDT Family.