The ballerina delicately dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a plum part, as is the handsome Prince soaring through the air, but the real stars of Houston Ballet's The Nutcracker?
Well, they would be the children, because there could be no magical holiday tale of wonder without them.
"I remember looking out at the audience during Act I during one of the few moments of calm and feeling the expansiveness of it all," says Charlotte Larzelere. Now a dancer with Houston Ballet II, Larzelere entered the academy at age seven and has been dancing The Nutcracker ever since. "Even though you feel out of breath and there's paper snow caught on your eyelashes the moment feels peaceful and beautiful and makes all the hours of rehearsal worth it."
For the students who set foot onto the Wortham Theater Center's stage for the first time it is truly a magical experience. And it's not just the time spent in front of the audience, it's also the camaraderie backstage: Mingling with the dancers and orchestra members, decorating their dressing rooms and exchanging secret Santa gifts. It's a part of belonging to something magical and bigger than themselves.
"My favorite part about performing in The Nutcracker is the sense of community that it creates," admits Larzelere.
Shelly Power, Director of Houston Ballet Academy, says as the academy has grown in recent years, so has the number of students cast in the annual production of The Nutcracker.
"This year we have eight casts of party children and six casts of clowns and the older students who are mice, soldiers, flying cooks and Mother Ginger's feet." Mother Ginger is composed of two dancers, a company member on top and a student on bottom : the "feet."
From the start, The Nutcracker ballet included children, students of the Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg. Ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet, Marius Petipa, commissioned Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky to write the sparkling score and his assistant Lev Ivanov to choreograph the ballet based on E.T.A. Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The ballet premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892. But it was not an immediate hit, and, ironically, one of the criticisms was the use of children.
But it is exactly the inclusion of young dancers that has made this an American holiday classic and a huge hit with audiences. Companies across the country use students, often more than a hundred for larger troupes, to give them onstage experience and inspire the little ones in the audience.
Artistic Director Emeritus Ben Stevenson created the Houston version of the ballet with designs by acclaimed designer Desmond Heeley, back in 1987. For 29 years it has been a Houston holiday staple, a perfect introduction to ballet for children and adults alike and over one million people have seen this version. But this holiday season is your last chance to see it, as Artistic Director Stanton Welch will be creating a new version for 2016.
The academy students in this ballet range in age from seven to thirteen years old and come from the main school while the older students (the mice and soldiers) are from the pre-professional track.
"The staff gets very excited to have the kids on stage," says Power. "We like being a part of making memories for these children."
Beth Everitt, Lower School Instructor, adds it's a magical time backstage. "For most of them it is the first time they are on stage in the Brown Theater," she says, "which is a very large auditorium, and this makes them feel extremely special."
You'd be hard pressed to find an American professional ballet dancer whose first onstage role wasn't in The Nutcracker (Power herself danced in the ballet as a student). But it's not the dream of a career that drives most children to audition.
"The experience is a life skill," says Power. "Whether or not they continue with dance, they will use this skill forever. Having put yourself out there, in front of others, it's a life experience. And for those chosen to perform, they learn discipline and coping skills."
And it is a big commitment. Students cast in the production spend several hours a week in rehearsal and forgo leaving town for Thanksgiving to participate in technical and dress rehearsals. For those in the Christmas Eve cast it means dancing instead of waiting at home for Santa. But the rewards for such sacrifices are incalculable.
"Students who have outgrown the children's roles in The Nutcracker have retained the choreography for years and are always excited to come into rehearsal to teach and demonstrate for the new group," Middle School Principal Cheryne Busch says.
And then there are some lessons learned from performing that translate to everyday life. Like the time Busch remembers when the children kept right on performing in the midst of mishap.
"One of the clowns came through the London Bridge formation and her hat attached itself to the jacket of another clown," she recalls. "And in the true spirit of 'the show must go on,' the two clowns completed the performance attached to one another while we held our breath backstage."
That's the sort of experience that can shape a child's future, for the better.
Marene Gustin, who has covered ballet for Dance International and Dance Magazine, writes for OutSmart.