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To dance like Clara


By the time audiences see the annual Thanksgiving-time performances of The Nutcracker, with dancers provided by the Rochester City Ballet and music performed by the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, the work is polished. The poise of the dancers, the memorable swells and leaps in Tchaikovsky's score, the dancing sweets and swirling snowflakes --- it all makes one seamless, magical whole.

Hours and hours of work are needed to get the performances ready. The RPO musicians and the RCB dancers rehearse separately until a week before the show. It isn't until then that the dancers get to practice on the stage at the Eastman Theatre and try to time the careful choreography to live music.

Two weeks before opening night, in the Company's new studio on University Avenue, RCB artistic director Jamey Leverett is directing the rehearsal of the snowflake scene from the first act. The dancers are in the Company's Corps de Ballet, dancers who range in ages from 15 to 19. Leverett has them dance a portion, talking them through it. Then she corrects them, and has them do it again. "You didn't pull your arms down with a sense of unison," she says.

From her home the next day, Leverett says that the rehearsals are going "quite well." So well, in fact, that she is giving the dancers a day off. "I think this is going to be one of our best Nutcrackers," she says.

For another workforce in this production, rehearsals are gearing up. This year 160 community children, ages 5 to 12, are dancing in the performances. They will dance as Pages, Angels, and Sprites alongside the older, more experienced dancers, in front of huge holiday-tradition-seeking crowds, to live music.

Leverett thinks the experience is a thrill for most of the children. "Not only to dance onstage with the older dancers," she says, "but the opportunity to be backstage, and the opportunity to dance to live music. I didn't get the opportunity to dance to live music until I was much older."

Up until dress rehearsals, the kids work with rehearsal assistants. "They saw me at the auditions," Leverett says, "and they'll see me again at the dress rehearsals."

One Saturday before showtime, RCB's studio is in chaos. It's rehearsal time for the community children, and the waiting area is packed full of parents holding winter coats, younger siblings, and manila envelopes (the photos of the little dancers in their costumes came back that day). Some parents are talking in small groups; some, with questions, are vying for a spot at the reception window or trying to flag down a RCB administrator. Small children --- mostly girls, the occasional boy --- in dance clothes are putting on ballet shoes and practicing little twirls. A rehearsal assistant is trying to gather the next group for rehearsal. "Do I have any other sprite parents?" she calls.

At 3 p.m., it's the beginning of the Page hour. In one room, a rehearsal assistant is corralling approximately 35 5- and 6-year-olds. She takes attendance, and then divides them into three groups. The first group is given toy French horns and they practice: march out, raise the horns in salute, lift arms in a V, bow, turn, march off. The horns are pointed in all different directions. "Did you forget those smiles?" the assistant says. They try again.

Out in the waiting room, three of the waiting parents wished they could have observed the rehearsals --- parents aren't allowed into the rehearsal space. Pam Black-Colton, Lorena Delancey, and Nancy Weinstein --- all mothers of first-time Pages --- say they spend a lot of time sitting in the waiting room, though the rehearsal schedule isn't too hectic. It's mostly Saturdays until dress-rehearsal week, when they'll be driving to the Eastman Theatre almost every day.

All of their children were in dance classes before they saw the audition announcement in the newspaper. Auditions for community-children dancers were held in August, and were open to any child who fit the age requirements. Nearly 200 children auditioned. They didn't need to be students at the Timothy M. Draper Center (the RCB feeder school).

Though experience is not necessarily required, it can be expensive for community children to participate in The Nutcracker: there's the performance fee, costumes, and then, of course, tickets for family and friends. Black-Colton says her daughter's supporters will take up 28 seats. In addition to family flying in for the occasion, all the girl's teachers are going, too.

But everyone is so excited to somehow be associated with the ballet. Most of the children seem engaged in the dancing --- or at least in watching themselves in the mirrors --- though in some cases, the parents seem more excited than the kids.

Black-Colton says her daughter is happy to meet the older dancers. "She's been talking to them a lot," she says. "They all started as Pages at one time or another. She wants to be Clara."

Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker, under the direction of Rochester City Ballet's Jamey Leverett and Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's Michael Butterman, will be performed Friday through Sunday, November 26 through 28, at the Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs Street, at 2 and 7 p.m. $22-$52. www.rpo.org, 454-2100

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