- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 9, 2006

Two weeks away, and the stage is set, quite literally, for Christmas. There’s a giant Christmas tree, gifts, holiday decorations and a house full of loving family and friends. The icing on the Christmas cake? Tremendous dancing and a score by none other than Tchaikovsky.

Yes, we’re talking about the Washington Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” which is in full swing at the Warner Theatre, complete with ballerinas doing near-impossible pirouettes, special effects a la canon fire, 19th-century Americana Christmas decor and a cast of hundreds of amateur dancers ages 6 through 19 doing everything from plies to high marches.

It’s picture-perfect.

But the perfection, including the “absolutely beautiful, choreographed chaos” that is the opening party scene, didn’t happen overnight, says Donna Glover, children’s coordinator with the Washington Ballet.

Without hours upon hours of hard work by the young dancers with the help of instructors and ballet Artistic Director Septime Webre, it could have been just “chaos,” and probably not in a good or gorgeous way.

“The commitment from the children and their parents is huge,” Ms. Glover says. “Once the children audition in October, their weekends are gone.”

The young amateur dancers — who during the performance dance alongside 28 professional dancers from the Washington Ballet — have devoted up to 30 hours a week to rehearsals, many of them giving up other activities, birthday parties and chances just to hang out with friends.

The strange thing is that these young Claras, Fritzes, frontier girls and little fishermen — all characters in the story about an adolescent girl, Clara, who has a fantastical dream on Christmas Eve about a mouse king, a nutcracker, a snow queen and a sugarplum fairy — don’t seem to mind. On the contrary.

“It’s really magical,” says Ariella Steinhorn, 13, one of three Claras. (There are several casts.) “My favorite is my dance with the Nutcracker. I get a chance to dance and act at the same time, and I love combining the two.”

Ariella, who does her whole performance en pointe (in those hard-toed ballet shoes, which ballerinas harden further by adding glue), has devoted 20 to 30 hours a week in the past two months to rehearsals. It doesn’t get tiring, boring?

“Oh no,” the delicate yet muscular, just-shy-of-90-pounds ballerina says incredulously. “I just think it’s so much fun.” Dancing with the professionals is just great, she says. Inspiring, in fact.

Her mother, Sabine Schleidt, says her daughter’s goal is to become a professional dancer. Not only is the technical skill of dancing a challenge and draw for young Ariella, but she finds performing in front of an audience liberating rather than nerve-wracking.

“It’s funny. She’s pretty reserved otherwise, but not onstage. She just gets into character. She blossoms,” Ms. Schleidt says of her daughter.

The passion for ballet started early. When Ariella was 3 years old, she would wear no other shoes than ballerina slippers. When she was about 5 years old, she started taking lessons.

Jacob Seltzer is 6 years old and has two dancing parts in this year’s “Nutcracker.” He plays a guest in the opening party scene and a Chinese fisherman in the second act.

“I like the dancing, and I really like the costumes,” Jacob says while fiddling with his Chinese straw hat during a recent dress rehearsal. He’s also wearing blue-and-green silk pants, a shirt and a smock embroidered with Chinese characters.

“I do plies, and I go backward,” he says while counting to imaginary music and displaying the backward steps.

Mr. Webre, the choreographer for “The Nutcracker” as well as the company’s artistic director, calls Jacob “a natural.”

“He’s completely new to ballet, but he’s already a performer,” Mr. Webre says.

Coaching and instructing the children is not that different from directing adults — at least not if you do it the Webre way.

“I try to talk to them as if they were adults,” Mr. Webre says. “They know I have high expectations, and they respond.”

From early October (rehearsals) to mid-December (full-fledged performances), much has happened. It’s as if a tangled roll of yarn has been untangled and ultimately turned into a beautiful sweater.

Back then, small groups of children would rehearse their specific dance over and over and over again, learning their steps, their correct placement onstage and the ubiquitous count. One wonders: Do these children dream of the eight-count?

“Jacob counts all the time, even at the dinner table,” says his mother, Suzanne Seltzer.

The rehearsals are gritty where the theatrical performance is smooth. Many of the dancers count out loud, they pant and sweat, and the pattering of their en-pointe shoes is like the pounding of torrential raindrops against a tin roof.

During some scenes, there seems to be total disorganization, and probably the only one who sees the light — or the finished product — at the end of the tunnel is Mr. Webre.

Consider a day a few weeks ago when he had the soldiers, girls age 6 and older, do the barn-door and figure-eight formations time and time again. “Pick up those knees,” Mr. Webre called out. “Count out loud,” he added. And finally, “Let’s do it again.”

Later, onstage, these soldiers wear red, white and blue and are part of the American troops that fight the Rat King, representing England in the Revolutionary War. Mr. Webre has sprinkled the ballet with American history. Frederick Douglass is a guest in the party scene, and Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin appear as dolls in a later scene.

Though the hours spent rehearsing far outweigh those spent onstage performing, the performances are what stand out when you look back on your career, says Elizabeth Gaither, a 32-year-old professional dancer with the Washington Ballet.

“I’ve been in ‘The Nutcracker’ every year since I was 9,” Miss Gaither says, adding that she missed a few performances because of injuries. “The best experience was when I danced Clara in the morning and the Snow Queen in the evening. That was really the pinnacle — to get to dance both parts in one day.”

Ms. Seltzer, who has accompanied her son Jacob to the Washington Ballet’s Wisconsin Avenue studios every weekend for the past two months, says the process from early rehearsals to finished production has been fascinating to watch.

“It’s amazing to see how it’s all come together,” she says. “Just a few months ago, Jacob didn’t even know his steps, and now he’s up there onstage, performing. It’s so exhilarating.”

Jacob, like many others, has had to give up some things to get where he is today — onstage. There is no more soccer on the weekends, and this fall’s birthday party invitations had to be declined. To Jacob, though, it’s been worth it.

“I just like it,” he says stubbornly. Adds his mother: “Jacob has always liked putting on a show. … I guess he has a flair for the dramatic.”

Doing “The Nutcracker” is not just about the individual student’s effort, however. It takes commitment from the entire family.

“The sacrifice the parents make is huge,” says Ms. Glover, whose own daughter is part of the amateur cast. “Basically, you can’t have weekend plans. We own them,” she says, smiling.

On any given Saturday or Sunday at the Wisconsin Avenue studios — there are five studios — the foyer area would be full of parents and some siblings. They would read, talk, knit or even sleep.

Ms. Seltzer, who has had a lot of sitting-around-and-waiting time at the studios, says she has used the time to knit a scarf, quilt and read.

“I always say, ‘If I only had a few minutes to myself.’ Well, this fall I certainly have,” Ms. Seltzer says with a laugh.

Now she’s looking forward to inviting family and friends to come see her son perform.

“People are coming from New York, Richmond. Everyone’s very excited,” she says.

Inviting family and friends to this holiday performance fits perfectly with one of the themes of the ballet.

“Christmas is a time when we take stock of people we love,” says Mr. Webre, the seventh of nine siblings. “Maybe it’s been dreary all year long, but this is a time we come together as a community and as a family.”

Finally, what’s Mr. Webre’s favorite part of the ballet?

“I would have to say the rat toss,” he says. The scene features Fritz, Clara’s younger brother, finding a rat in the fireplace and throwing it across the room. It lands on the butler’s tray. “It’s my favorite because you don’t often get a chance for a real belly laugh during a ballet performance.”

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