Imagine this: A large studio filled with young children auditioning for PNB’s Nutcracker. Adults sit behind a table at the front of the studio talking quietly with their lists of numbers and names, pencils and notepads. Groups of students are led across the floor doing various steps until, suddenly, one young girl trips and falls in front of everyone. Devastated, she feigns an injury—a sprained ankle in addition to her bruised dignity. But the stress of her embarrassment is just too much and—right as the tears start to come—a tall man comes to her rescue by scooping her up and carrying her safely out of the room.

For several years this heart-warming story, part rumor and part legend, has followed Ballet Master Otto Neubert around the PNB studios. It sort of comes with the territory. In addition to teaching and rehearsing Company dancers year-round alongside fellow ballet masters Anne Dabrowski and Paul Gibson, Otto is responsible for rehearsing PNB School students in their Nutcracker roles, as well as other full-length productions like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Giselle that feature children in the cast. For Nutcracker, the job is simply too big for any one person (even if he is 6’ 2”) so all three ballet masters share the workload. 

Rehearsal Directors are the unsung heroes of PNB’s enormous annual holiday production. With over 200 children cast in Nutcracker each year, Otto estimates that he’s worked with 4,500 children since Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, PNB’s Founding Artistic Directors, brought him on board in 1992. His passion for working with the children in Nutcracker becomes apparent when he says, “When you work with the kids, it is pure joy. There’s no lack of effort or energy—there’s no attitude. It’s great to see when they come alive and take ownership of their little part. I can’t even imagine Christmas without Nutcracker.” And, for the children in the cast, the show would not be the same without Otto.

Organizing so many children year after year and coaching them to meet the high standards of professional performance is a daunting task. When asked if he ever gets nervous watching each cast of children take the stage Otto replies, “Nervous is the wrong word. By the time the children perform onstage they know what they are doing. The hardest day is when they rehearse on the stage for the first time. It’s usually the Monday before we open and they have their costumes. That’s the day when whatever you’ve been working on with them falls apart a little bit. Actually, now that I think about it, there are two other days like that: when the kids in the Party Scene and the Fight Scene rehearse with Company dancers for the first time.” But, after 22 years of doing it, he’s gained some valuable insights into how to best work with these tiny cast members saying, “If you treat children as children you’ll get a kid’s response. If you treat them as little people you’ll get a person’s response.” With that statement I begin to get a sense of his level of expertise.

Francia Russell, who had a front row seat for Otto’s PNB career until her own retirement in 2005, elaborated on his innate ability to connect with children saying, “When a new group of children meets Otto for the first time they are often terrified. He is so tall and looks so stern. But if anyone can teach discipline through love it is Otto. And the kids always ‘get it.’ They respect him first, and then they love him as much as he loves them. This has happened not only in Seattle but everywhere we toured with ballets involving children: many American cities, plus Edinburgh, London, Istanbul, Hong Kong, and Vancouver. They follow him around with adoring eyes and never fail to do their absolute best to please him. Otto is unselfishly devoted to his work as ballet master, but we think he looks happiest when he is with ‘his’ kids.”

Otto is self-effacing when it comes to his gift for working with children, heading off compliments by saying things like, “For some reason kids like me—I don’t know what that’s all about.” And the story of the little girl in the Nutcracker audition? I ask him point blank about her: “Did that really happen? Did you really do that?” He expertly  dodges that prying question saying simply, “It might have happened…I might have.”

Blog by Judith May Austin; all photos © Angela Sterling unless otherwise noted.

Featured Photo: Rehearsal Directors Otto Neubert and Anne Dabrowski rehearse children for PNB’s Stowell & Sendak Nutcracker. Photo by Kurt Smith.