Hoping to glimpse the glittering Christmas tree and gifts secreted beneath it, excited children tiptoe toward the drawing room doors.
Caught in the act and scolded away, “Sneak Boy” Gerard Hernandez and the others enthusiastically rush offstage — where they join the line of party boys and girls who open Act 1 of Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” as it begins with a festive family party.
Gerard is learning to live with the challenges of a chronic gastrointestinal disease. And he has found that the movement of dance helps him build stamina and physical strength while also boosting his confidence.
“My favorite thing about ballet is … everything. Everything! I can’t leave out anything. I love it all — dancing, the costumes, the props,” said the fifth-grader, who will turn 11 on Christmas Eve. He has been cast as “Sneak Boy” in the first three performances of Ballet West’s production this year.
By the time he was 7, Gerard had already seen Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker” three times and decided he wanted to be in it. But his health had deteriorated rapidly the preceding year.
He lost weight, was inexplicably tired and often appeared to be a pale gray color, recalls his mother, Rebecca Ory Hernandez. Over the course of several months, tests to find out what was wrong were inconclusive. Gerard could do little more than sleep and watch television.
She took her son to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and he was eventually diagnosed with inflammatory bowel disease, or IBD.
As Gerard and his family spent the following year recovering and finding the right medications and treatments to manage his condition, he didn’t forget his dream of being a part of “The Nutcracker.”
He auditioned for the Ballet West production when he was 8, the first year children can try to earn a spot in the opening party scene. The morning of the auditions, he was tired but still wanted to attend.
“I was supporting my dance studio, Dance Arts, in Ogden. It was really fun,” he remembers. “They showed us steps and then we acted. I was super excited that there were a ton of other boys.”
He was cast as a party boy for the 2016 season, and his parents did all they could to support him — including driving from Ogden to Salt Lake City for rehearsals. Once casting is complete, rehearsals begin almost immediately. For the next three to four months, party boys and girls rehearse two to three times a week, for an hour or more per day.
Most newly diagnosed IBD patients are teens or young adults in their early 20s, according to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. Only 5 percent of IBD patients are children, leaving the Hernandez family to navigate the disease with little guidance, in addition to helping him cope with the stigma attached to his illness.
Michael and Rebecca Hernandez have educated their son’s teachers, negotiated his access to a private restroom at school, identified foods that reduce his symptoms and learned to advocate for his needs and help him live with his chronic illness.
His current treatment involves monthly chemotherapy infusions at Primary Children’s Hospital to manage inflammation, along with other therapies. A genetic test that would confirm if he has the inherited genes that made him susceptible to IBD is regularly denied by the family’s insurance company, along with coverage of thousands of dollars of medications and medical bills each month, Rebecca Hernandez said.
This summer, Gerard loved attending Camp Oasis in Colorado, where he spent time with other children with IBD illnesses and learned additional skills to cope with his disease.
Ballet is a mental and physical outlet that makes him happier and healthier. It’s become his focus, over his other interests of soccer, baseball and swimming. He’s earned a partial scholarship to Ballet West Academy, continued dancing in “The Nutcracker” and was chosen to play a spring attendant in Ballet West’s staging of “Cinderella” this past spring.
“Ballet has been the one steady activity that helps Gerard detox his body as well as his mind,” Rebecca Hernandez said. “His doctors are supportive and extremely happy that Gerard has found a sport and art that can transport him to another place that makes him feel happy and like every other kid in the room.”
The nearly 300 children who join the cast each holiday season have an experience filled with excitement and wonder, said Heather Thackeray, Ballet West’s student ballet mistress — from learning the steps of the performance to seeing the behind-the-scenes workings of the sets and props to the thrill of appearing onstage.
Now in his third season of the production, Gerard plays a critical role backstage with the younger party boys, Thackeray said. He can often be found showing them how to hold a prop and where to line up for makeup or hair.
“It’s fun to watch him take on a leadership role and teach the new boys,” she said. “Watching him grow and participate has been a joy.”
This season, Thackeray said, she was thrilled when Gerard received a callback for the role of Fritz, the brother of the ballet’s young heroine, Clara.
“This really goes to show how hard he’s been working,” she said. “When they really love it, you can’t help but want to put them in a role that has them excel.”
Although Gerard wasn’t ultimately selected for the role, Michael and Rebecca Hernandez were thrilled to see their son’s competitive spirit return.
“Ballet has given me my boy back,” Rebecca says. “Ballet West is a gift to us and he’s living the dream of dancing with a world-class ballet academy.”
And Gerard “is exactly the kind of kid we’d like to participate in ‘The Nutcracker,’” Thackeray said. “He’s one of my best performers — so animated, so filled with life. He enjoys it so much. He’s a testament to the magical life transformation of ‘The Nutcracker.’”
CATCHING BALLET WEST’S “THE NUTCRACKER”
Gerard Hernandez appears in performances at Capitol Theatre Friday and Saturday. The production runs through Dec. 29.
WHERE: Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
WHEN: Dec. 14-29; evening performances at 7; matinees at 2 p.m. with special performances on Dec. 23 at noon and 5 p.m. and Dec. 24 at noon; no performances on Christmas