This time of year, many young ballet lovers have visions of Sugar Plum Fairies dancing in their heads. But few would actually dream of sharing the stage with the beautiful, enchanting creature in The Nutcracker, one of the most popular ballets of all time.
A select group of Northeast Ohio dance students will do just that when the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago makes its Cleveland debut of The Nutcracker with the Cleveland Orchestra Nov. 29 through Dec. 2 at the State Theatre.
Sixty-one girls from the Akron-Cleveland area will dance as party girls and boys, dolls, angels, soldiers, mice, mounted mice (mice riding on other mice) and polichinelles (little French clowns), alongside more than 40 world-class Joffrey dancers next week. The performances will mark the first time the Cleveland Orchestra has performed a full production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
The local dancers will become part of a 120-year tradition celebrated around the world. The Nutcracker’s first performance took place in Russia in 1892, when French choreographer and assistant Lev Ivanov collaborated to create the ballet with famous composer Peter Tchaikovsky. The ballet became an American favorite in 1940, when it was first performed in New York by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
In Northeast Ohio, you could say Akron Our Lady of the Elms sixth-grader Kelsey Weir is an old hand at The Nutcracker at age 11, having danced in it for five years at her ballet school.
Yet Kelsey, who has danced since she was 2, has never performed on a professional stage. Her class at the Cleveland Ballet Conservatory in North Royalton was encouraged to audition for The Nutcracker, which Kelsey’s mother, Kimberly, stressed has perfect roles for her daughter’s age group.
Kelsey takes six classes a week at her dance school, and five of her classmates have been cast in the Joffrey’s Nutcracker. The youngster sparked some added interest from those running the Joffrey auditions when she was the only girl to show up with a resume.
These are the things Kelsey stresses focusing on in a professional ballet audition: “Smiling and making direct eye contact and remembering the pieces.”
The Weirs will come home early from their Thanksgiving vacation in Delaware for Kelsey to make rehearsals this weekend, when Joffrey ballet master and educator Willy Shives returns from Chicago to tweak the girls’ dances for four days straight.
On Tuesday, five 48-foot-long semi-trailer trucks will arrive with the Joffrey’s Nutcracker sets and 200 costumes. The company of more than 40 Joffrey dancers and artistic director Ashley Wheater will arrive Wednesday for tech rehearsal.
Kelsey, who plays a Party Girl, has enjoyed rehearsing for her performance every Saturday at PlayhouseSquare's Idea Center. Shives taught the girls most of the show the weekend they auditioned, and then Gladisa Guadalupe, a former Cleveland Ballet dancer and founder of the Cleveland School of Dance, took over the reins for weekly local rehearsals.
Kelsey, a Richfield resident, has missed her dance classes on Saturdays in order to attend local Nutcracker rehearsals. She’ll also miss a couple days of school next week for final rehearsals. But she and her mom know the experience will be worth it.
“We figured it would be intense for a short period of time,” said Kimberly Weir.
Carpooling with fellow cast member Eva Moore, also of Richfield, has been a godsend for the family. Kelsey gets to dance with close friend Eva of Bath Elementary, who plays her Party Boy brother in the production.
Kelsey, who would like to dance professionally one day, said her experience rehearsing for the Joffrey Nutcracker has included a lot more movement detail and much more acting than she’s accustomed to.
“It’s a challenge to learn but now once we know it, it’s pretty easy,” Kelsey said of her part.
In local casting for the Joffrey’s Nutcracker, children were required to be 9 years or older, between 4 and 5 feet tall, and with a minimum of two years’ dance experience. This year, for the inaugural Nutcracker collaboration between the famed ballet company and the renowned orchestra, all the girls who came out for the audition in early October were given a spot.
“The children were so disciplined and very focused and very eager,” Shives said of the Northeast Ohio dancers.
He said local ballet mistress Guadalupe runs a tight ship when it comes to the children’s advance preparation: “She is a go-getter and do it right and do it with finesse and confidence and with prowess.”
Linda Jackson, assistant director of community engagement and education for PlayhouseSquare, helped run the children’s auditions. She said the young dancers are expected to behave just as professionally as the pros. For auditions, they not only were expected to dance well, but also needed to demonstrate that they were effervescent and engaged.
Jackson, a former Cleveland Ballet dancer, said the youngsters have been working very hard over the last six weeks.
“It’s amazing to see them grow and shine,” she said. “They won’t have to think about the steps and the music because they’ll be so well prepared they can think of the new details” when the company arrives.
It’s the silver anniversary production of the Joffrey’s Nutcracker, choreographed by the late Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino. This renowned company’s version incorporates a classic American setting. In Chicago, where the ballet is performed over three weeks, more than 120 local children are double cast in the show.
The Joffrey has cast local children for its Nutcracker for many years in other cities, including Washington, Los Angeles, Detroit and St. Louis. As part of its annual tradition, the company casts two child wheelchair dancers in each production. In Cleveland, those roles will be filled by Rena Oradini of Parma Heights and Adaja Jackson of Warrensville.
“Joffrey has done this for so many years and they kind of have it down to a science,” Shives said of the children’s rehearsal machine.
He stressed that the excitement goes both ways: “It’s actually exciting for the company too, to see the talent of the local children.”
Shives said the most advanced child dancers play both polichinelles and mice. The precise marching, turning and pivoting makes the soldier role one of the hardest.
Twelve-year-old Gwen Shehorn, a dance student at Akron’s Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts, plays one of the soldiers.
“We do a lot of marching and just a lot of sharp movements, just a lot of acting,” the seventh-grader said. “It’s a lot of feet coordination.”
The Shalersville, Portage County, resident, who aspires to a dance career in New York, takes 12 to 15 dance classes a week between Miller South and Lisa’s School of Dance in Streetsboro. In recent Nutcracker rehearsals with the soldiers and mice, her dance is coming together, Gwen said.
“It’s really strict. You just have to be perfect or close to perfect with everyone and just try your hardest,” she said.
Gwen, who is making her debut with both a professional company and in the Nutcracker, has these audition tips: “Honestly, just be yourself and just be confident. Even if you don’t make the part, the audition’s still a good experience for you.”
Above all, ballet master Shives said the kids must believe in the Nutcracker role they’re playing. Dancers playing Party Girls and Boys such as Kelsey must be animated.
“They need to be children, that’s what they are,” Shives said. “They need to be very well groomed, behaved children” of the Victorian era.
Caroline Jung of Hudson, who is brand new to The Nutcracker experience, plays a doll that comes to life in the battle scene between the Nutcracker and Mouse King. The 9-year-old told her mom she wanted to try out for the Joffrey Nutcracker after she saw a flier posted at the Nan Klinger Excellence in Dance studio in Cuyahoga Falls. Caroline, who started dancing when she was 4, is a fourth-grader at East Wood Elementary School.
Mom Kekyung Kim, who is a native of Korea, wasn’t familiar with the Joffrey but quickly learned how famous the company is after doing some online research.
“I think she doesn’t realize yet how big a setting” she’ll be dancing in, Kim said of her daughter.
Now that Caroline has experienced a four-hour, professional audition, her mom has these recommendations for parents whose kids do so in the future: Pack snacks and drinks for your young dancer and consider carpooling with families from your child’s studio.
Caroline’s best advice to youngsters who aspire to dance on a professional stage is this: “You have to do your best or you won’t get picked.”
This holiday weekend, when many people will be shopping or relaxing, the 61 young Northeast Ohio dancers will be rehearsing with Shives on Saturday and Sunday as well as Monday and Tuesday evening in final preparation for their first rehearsal with the Joffrey dancers Wednesday and dress rehearsal Thursday. Amid all the hubbub, the girls will be fitted for their costumes, all of which are new, on Tuesday.
“`The kids are a very big part of The Nutcracker, obviously, and they have a lot of important roles,” Shives said. “I want them all to come out of this having a great experience and just a fun time.”
Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or firstname.lastname@example.org.