Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” stands as a “must see” family-friendly holiday tradition. And in the midst of glistening snowflakes, dancing mice, and battling tin soldiers stands principal dancer Kathleen Breen Combes.
In artistic director Mikko Nissinen’s acclaimed adaptation of the classic Tchaikovsky Christmas ballet, Kathleen plays The Snow Queen, The Sugar Plum Fairy, and performs an Arabian dance.
The holiday ballet follows the journey of young Clara, who receives a nutcracker – in folklore, nutcrackers were given as keepsakes to bring good luck to families and protect their homes – at her family’s Christmas Eve party. Later that evening, the nutcracker magically comes to life and leads Clara through an enchanted forest and on to the Nutcracker Prince’s Kingdom.
Featuring the full company of 56 dancers, 10 Boston Ballet II dancers and 250 Boston Ballet School students, the 44-performance engagement runs through Dec. 31 at the Boston Opera House.
This year marks Kathleen’s 15th season with Boston Ballet. One of six children, she is the only one with a career in the arts.
From their native Long Island, her family moved to Florida where she trained with Northwest Florida Ballet, The HARID Conservatory and Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique (where she studied with her mentor, Magda Aunon). She danced with The Washington Ballet before coming to Boston.
She had previously visited Boston at the age of 12 when her parents sent her to Boston Ballet’s summer dance program. She returned to the program twice, when she was 16 and 17.
While dancing in Washington, she remained intrigued with Boston and Mikko Nissinen’s diverse artistic repertoire. She was eventually invited to a three-day audition at The Wang and was delighted when Mikko hired her after her first day, telling her to “go find an apartment.”
Hailed by The New York Times as a “ballerina of colossal scale and boldness,” Kathleen met her husband, Yury Yanowsky, when he, too, was dancing with Boston Ballet. He has since moved on to a career as a choreographer. They have a baby daughter.
Kathleen traces her heritage to Tempo Village in County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland. One of her father’s cousins still lives on the family farm, once home to her grandfather and his nine brothers and sisters.
She currently trains with an intensity and focus equal to that of any major athlete, working seven hours a day, five to six days a week. We spoke between rehearsals.
Q. You’ve become an integral part of so many holiday memories for families here in Boston. What’s it like being part of “The Nutcracker?”
A. There is this joy surrounding it, and I can’t imagine Christmas without it . . . There’s this incredible feeling when you leave the theater between shows, you know, on a two-show Saturday or a two-show Sunday. You see the kids on the street who have just seen it, with their paper crowns and their wands. And they’re dancing down the street, and you say, that’s because of what we just did. That’s so special, to see that you are having an impact on these kids.
Q. For many people, “The Nutcracker” carries a strong emotional memory from their first time attending a ballet.
A. Absolutely. I think for most people in America, it really is their introduction. I had a baby a year ago and I was in recovery and the doctor came in and said “Were you in ‘The Nutcracker???’ “ So my husband and I became known as “The Nutcracker” couple! Every nurse who came in had to talk about it. And it was so incredible because you realize what a vast audience we have. Everybody goes to it.
Q. How did you begin dancing?
A. When I was very little, I didn’t walk for 18 months. My Mom noticed that I wasn’t walking properly. She took me to a doctor who said my leg muscles weren’t fully developed and it would be a good idea to put me in some sort of a creative movement class, just to get the muscles moving. She was huge fan of ballet, so she started me in ballet. I fell in love with it. I always say I never remember deciding that I wanted to be a dancer – it was there.
Q. Do you have memories of your first time on stage?
A. I do, actually. I danced at City Center. Forth Worth Ballet, which was in Texas, came to New York and they were doing a production of “Cinderella” and they needed children for the production . . . I got chosen. I was one of the fairy attendants. I was maybe seven. My only role was to walk on holding the ballerina’s cape behind her, stand on stage while she danced, and then hold her cape as we walked off. That was it. It was my debut at City Center and from then on it was like, “This is it!”
Q. Dancers have a very specific time window for their careers. Where do you see yourself in the future? Joining your husband as a choreographer?
A. I just got my bachelor’s degree from Northeastern University in communications and management. And I just started on my master’s in nonprofit management.
Q. Between rehearsals, performances and being a Mom, where do you find the time?
A. I don’t know! It’s a lot . . . There are so few artists who take the time to get educated in the administrative side of the arts. To have both of those qualities and go into running a nonprofit is very valuable. So that’s what I’m hoping to do.
Q. Last question. Is there a special moment in “The Nutcracker” for you?
A. There is. There’s this moment when The Sugar Plum gives the crown to Clara. It’s kind of like this passing it on, you know? You’re passing it on to the next generation. All the young dancers are staring at you at that moment and it’s really special to be on stage with them.
R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of onstageboston.com.
Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” through Dec. 31, Boston Opera House, 539 Washington Street. Info: bostonballet.org/nutcracker, or 617-695-6955.