T his year, on stages and venues throughout the area, there will be angels earning their wings, mice and toy soldiers going to battle and ginger children emerging from the cover of their mother’s hoop skirt to dance circles around her.And that is just part of the story.
It is once again time for “The Nutcracker,” a ballet that features creatures large and small, fantastical and real, that all come together to tell the story of a young girl, Clara (Marie in some versions), who enjoys a magical evening, complete with drama and suspense. It begins with a holiday party and continues with her travels through a land of sweets and treats, alongside her nutcracker-turned-prince. It is there that she encounters snowflakes, flowers, a queen and a fairy or two. With music by Tchaikovsky, this ballet, which premiered more than 100 years ago, has become a holiday tradition for many families in the United States.
“So many of us have grown up watching it or being in it,” said Christina Paolucci, co-director of the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, who recalled seeing her first “Nutcracker” in 1981. “It’s been a part of my life for over 20 years in one way or another.”
During her years with the New York Theatre Ballet in the 1990s, she had occasion to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which is one of the most coveted roles for female dancers.
Although the marquee roles have their allure for the dancers, there is a progression of characters that afford young dancers a path to the top. The story requires dancers who can play the parts of party guests, toy dolls and pages. You need performers who can impart the flavor of sweets from around the world — Spanish chocolate, Chinese tea, Arabian coffee and Russian and Danish treats — to Clara and her prince with only their nimble feet.
Between donning their wings to putting on a tutu to serve as the overseer of the land of treats, they can gain technical skills, poise and presence and make memories in the process.
Over the past 11 years, Emilie Kushner, a 17-year-old senior at New Canaan High School who will be playing Clara this year for the New England Academy of Dance and New England Dance Theater’s production of “The Nutcracker,” has amassed quite a resume. Those roles have included angel, mouse, little ginger girl, party guest, soldier, candy cane, a snowflake, a Chinese dancer and a Spanish dancer. She began dancing at the academy at age 3.
“I definitely always wanted to be Clara,” said Kushner, who recalled watching from the wings as a little girl. “I can still remember being an angel ... watching wishfully as Clara danced her pas de deux with the Nutcracker.”
The chance to inspire the dancers coming after you also is a distinct Nutcracker tradition, she said. “My hope now is that I can be the inspiration for some little girl just like Clara once inspired me.”
“When you are younger, you are looking at the older girls who are dancing, and everyone wants to be Clara,” said Burlingame, 26, who teaches and runs rehearsals at the school. She will be the Snow Queen in the company’s production this year. “You try to dance like them and improve.”
For many organizations, the production also offers a chance for community outreach, since not all roles demand a high level of expertise. Stamford-based Connecticut Ballet, for example, annually holds open auditions to fill about 100 children’s roles. In some instances, it gives aspiring dancers their first chance to share the stage with professional dancers, including guest artists from the American Ballet Theatre and members of the company.
At Fairfield-based Connecticut Dance School, the corps of characters are in-house.
“There is a chance to move up in the ranks,” said Alan Woodard, the school’s artistic director.
Such a progression leads to a great lesson in discipline and the value of hard work — two elements that are crucial to those wanting to pursue dance as a profession, he added.
In the 1950s, Woodard, who is originally from Britain, danced “The Nutcracker” with the London Festival Ballet, which would become the English National Ballet. “We would do it for three weeks, twice a day,” he said.
He switched around in the roles, which he said was “better that way, so you don’t get stale.”
That just may be the key to the enduring popularity of “The Nutcracker.” Every year, there is another group of dancers, at various points of their career, ready to bring a magical evening to life. For the relatives and friends in the audience, it’s a chance to watch a child steadily mature from a tin soldier to a prince, or blossom from a mouse into a snowflake.
For Burlingame, there is an even simpler appeal.
“It kind of puts you in the holiday spirit,” she said. “It wouldn’t be Christmas without ’The Nutcracker.’ ”
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“Nutcracker” performances planned throughout Fairfield and New Haven counties:
New England Academy of Dance/New England Dance Theater — New Canaan High School, 11 Farm Road, New Canaan. Sunday, Dec. 2, 4 p.m. All seats are reserved. $50 to $10. 203-972-3265, www.neadance.com.
Ballet Etudes Company — Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Saturday, Dec. 8; Sunday, Dec. 2, 1 and 4 p.m., with guest artists American Ballet Theatre’s Yuriko Kajiya and Jared Matthews. $35. 203-227-4177, www.westportplayhouse.org.
New England Ballet Company — Parson’s Government Center, 70 W. River St., Milford. Saturday, Dec. 8, 4 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 p.m. Klein Memorial Auditorium, 910 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport. Saturday, Dec. 15, 2 p.m., with Jared Matthews and Yuriko Kajiya of the American Ballet Theatre. $22 to $48. The NEBC also will present its “Adaptive Nutcracker,” which features special needs performers at the Parson’s Government Center on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 11 a.m. 203-799-7950, www.newenglandballet.org.
New Haven Ballet — Shubert Theater, 247 College St., New Haven. Friday, Dec. 7, 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 8, 1 and 5:30 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 p.m. with guest artists Misa Kuranaga, Lia Cirio and Jeffrey Cirio of Boston Ballet. $50 to $15. 203-562-5666, www.shubert.com.
Purchase College Dance Company — Performing Arts Center at Purchase College, 735 Anderson Hill Road, Purchase, N.Y. “Nutcracker ’12” will feature some innovative and traditional choreography. Friday, Dec. 7, 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 8, 1 and 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 and 5 p.m. $52.50 to $24.75. 914-251-6200, www.artscenter.org.
Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance — Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 E. Ridge, Ridgefield. Saturday, Dec. 8, 2 and 6 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9, 2 p.m. $25 adults, $20 senior, $15 children. 203-438-5795, www.ridgefieldplayhouse.org.
Connecticut Dance School — Quick Center for the Performing Arts at Fairfield University, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield. Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 and 4 p.m. $40 adults; $25, seniors, children and students. 203-254-4010, www.quickcenter.com.
Connecticut Ballet — The Palace Theatre, 61 Atlantic St., Stamford. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 to 16; Dec. 22 to 23, 2 p.m. Guest artists include Julie Kent, Veronika Part and Alexandre Hammoudi, who are all principals and guest soloists with the American Ballet Theatre, and Jose Manuel Carreno, a former dancer with the American Ballet Theatre. $50 to $25. 203-325-4466, www.scalive.org. Or, 203-964-1211, www.connecticutballet.com.