For Hazaros Surmeyan, 48 years of dancing The Nutcracker

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In his more than 50 years as a ballet dancer, Hazaros Surmeyan estimates that he’s performed in a production of the Nutcracker, oh, about 800 times.

Most of those performances were with the National Ballet.

Surmeyan, who turns 72 on January 22, celebrates his 48th year with the company this season.

He’ll be costumed in elegant Russian military regalia, playing a parent, in the 30 performances of the Nutcracker, which opens Saturday (Dec. 13) and runs through Jan. 3 at the Four Seasons Opera House.

Surmeyan has performed almost every role in the Nutcracker except the Sugar Plum Fairy.

When he arrived in Toronto in 1966, he was the Spanish Dancer. Then, he performed as the Prince, partnering Veronica Tennant and Vanessa Harwood. Later, he was godfather Drosselmeyer, a role which no longer exists in the James Kudelka version of the holiday season spectacle.

“This one has a Russian background, like in Dr. Zhivago,” explains Surmeyan. “The horses dance, the bear dances, it’s quite impressive. Too bad we can’t take it on tour somewhere — it would take 18 trucks to transport it.”

The Nutcracker endures, he says, because “it is a piece of jewel. It doesn’t matter which company or how it’s done. The music is fantastic. It’s played everywhere, even in the mall.”

After the final Nutcracker performance, Surmeyan and his wife, Lorna Geddes, will relax in Jamaica.

Geddes joined the company in 1959 when she was 16 and still performs occasionally as a “character artist” as well as serving as assistant ballet mistress and overseeing the company’s shoe room. “She is the National Ballet,” says her husband. The couple has a 38-year old son.

Surmeyan says that ballet performance has changed over the decades since he became a dancer.

“It’s changed for the better,” he says. “The dancers are much better technically and they’re all good looking kids, My only regret is, in those days, we didn’t have the technique we have now so we pushed the dramatic acting. Now, because they put so much into the technique, I feel a little is lost from the acting.

“But the National is a fantastic company, a number one company internationally, right up there with the Paris Opera and the Royal Ballet.”

And while the audience has become more knowledgeable, Surmeyan still wishes there were more balletomanes: “diehards who come for every show and know the actual steps. We really haven’t developed that here. It’s the only thing I miss. Maybe it will come.”

Surmeyan no longer takes class with the company but says he’s tempted because of the applause he’d get as “the old guy” showing up. 
But he cherishes his position as Principal Character Artist.

“It’s part employment,” he says, “and part is joy.”

Being on stage, he says, “is like a drug.

“When you are young, you dream to become a dancer. While you’re doing it, you still dream — and even later on. The whole thing is a big dream.

“The only thing I resent is the punishment of pounding the floor, the injuries, the little operations. When you get older, everything hurts — knees, ankles, back. It’s hard to get up in the morning. All those beautiful years, and then the punishment later on.”

But the pain hasn’t deterred him from being part of the ballet, which is his life.

“The stage never leaves you, you leave the stage. I hope, when I’m old enough, to die on stage.”

In the meantime, he says, “You can be 100 years old and still find something to create.”