Sofia Pelletier remembers the time she found a sick baby mouse.
The 8-year-old Schenectady girl did the right thing. She took care of the small animal and gave him a name — “Squeaker.” And she was sad when her little pet passed away.
Sofia still likes baby mice. But she will show no mercy toward a larger, malevolent rodent next month. As Clara, the young heroine in Northeast Ballet Company’s version of “The Nutcracker,” Sofia will soon smite the villainous “Mouse Queen” with a slipper, and help her magnificent nutcracker prince save Christmas Eve during the traditional holiday ballet.
“It’s a very big honor and it’s very fun during rehearsals,” said Pelletier of her prominent role, which people will see Saturday, Dec. 8, at Proctors in Schenectady. “My experience isn’t that big, so the [Myers Dance] school has kind of helped me.”
Clara will be on several area stages in November and December. Young girls from Saratoga City Ballet, Albany Berkshire Ballet and Adirondack Ballet have also been practicing the part since early autumn. They can’t wait to wear the cute and curious little girl’s party dress and pajama gown, interact with magical Uncle Drosselmeyer and watch the energetic and colorful dancers that entertain during the show’s second act.
Where to see ‘The Nutcracker’
Fans of ballet, tradition and the Christmas holidays can see dancing Claras — and dancing flowers, snowflakes and sugarplum fairies — at these local presentations of “The Nutcracker.”
• Moscow Ballet, at the Palace Theatre in Albany, Tuesday, Dec. 4 at 7:30 p.m. $68-$27.50. palacealbany.com
• Northeast Ballet, at Proctors in Schenectady — Saturday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m. $40-$20. www.proctors.org
• Adirondack Ballet Theater, at the Charles R. Wood Theater in Glens Falls — Saturday, Dec. 8 at 2:30 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2:30 p.m. $16. www.woodtheater.org/events
• Saratoga City Ballet, at the Skidmore College Dance Theater — Friday, Dec. 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 15 at 2 and 7 p.m.; Sunday Dec. 16 at noon and 3 p.m. Tickets at brownpapertickets.com, $19-$13
• Albany Berkshire Ballet, at the Center for the Performing Arts at the Empire State Plaza, The Egg — Sunday, Dec. 16 at 2:30 and 6:30 p.m. Before The Egg shows, Albany Berkshire also will perform in Burlington, Vt., and in Andover, Pittsfield and Springfield, Mass. Albany tickets are $38-$15. www.theegg.org
In mom’s footsteps
Pelletier and fellow Clara Tiniki VanNiekerk, 6, of Niskayuna have had help from Northeast director Darlene Myers, who this year is rehearsing her 25th anniversary production of “The Nutcracker.” Pelletier also has received advice from her mother, Lucie Capek, who danced the role as a young girl during the 1970s.
“It was with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto and Ottawa,” said Capek, a plastic surgeon based in Latham.
“It was amazing,” she added. “It was one of those dreams come true to get picked. It was wholly unexpected. I was 11. . . . It was one of the highlights of my life. You can never forget — it’s a real confidence builder for a child, I think. You’re singled out as special and as having something adults see in you that builds your confidence.”
Pelletier, a third-grader at The Brown School in Schenectady, performed in Northeast’s 2011 show as a party child. She was a gingerbread with Mother Ginger in 2010. She’s ready for the new challenge.
“The first act I like because you’re more dressed up and you have more of a poofy skirt,” she said. “But in the second act, I like wearing the sleeping gown because it’s easier to turn and you’re more able to dance.”
The youngster has already been told about fast moves she must master during the first act, as the party scene ends and mouse soldiers prepare to invade the vacated family living room.
“They say, ‘You’re going to have to do a quick change, so be ready!’ Pelletier said. “It’s going to be a challenge because I’m wearing so much stuff. Get the hairpiece out, put another hairpiece in, get the dress off, get the bloomers off and put everything else on. That’s going to be kind of hard to do in one minute.”
Mother will be watching. Capek will return to “Nutcracker” duty, performing as a party woman in this year’s opening scene.
Meanwhile, VanNiekerk will become the youngest girl to ever play Clara in a Northeast production. She’ll be in costume for Northeast’s matinee performance on Sunday, Dec. 9.
“You get to have fun, I also get to be lifted,” said VanNiekerk, who attends Glencliff Elementary School.
She will have no fright under the lights. She’s been on stage before, for shows at the Jewish Community Center.
Center of attention
At Saratoga City Ballet, 14-year-olds Alison Genevich of Saratoga Springs and Nica Buckley of Ballston Spa will be the centers of attention during the company’s 20th anniversary productions. Five shows will be held at the Skidmore College Dance Theater from Dec. 14-16.
“It’s a really fun experience and challenging because you have to do a lot of dancing,” said Genevich, a freshman at Saratoga Springs High School. “You have to show a lot of emotion. You have to make it real.”
There’s a little pressure involved. But Claras are a hearty breed.
“There are a lot of things to love about it,” Genevich said. “You kind of carry the show, you bring everything together.”
There are some minor concerns. Genevich knows she will spend much of the second act as a spectator, watching the performances of the Spanish, Russian, Chinese and other outfits. “You get to watch the dances and at the same time you worry you’re not going to be warmed up for the finale,” she said.
Fun trumps all. There’s a duet with the Nutcracker prince, played by Corry Etheridge. “We do a lot of jumps and leaps,” Genevich said.
No rivalry is involved. Ballerinas who play Clara stick together.
“I love sharing the role because Ali is one of my really good friends,” said Buckley, a freshman at Ballston Spa High School. “It would be too much to handle if she wasn’t here. We definitely help each other out.”
Clara and her Christmas dreams make the whole show work.
“Clara is the main character, so we rely on her to carry through the whole story,” said Eve D. Whelchel, a director of the Saratoga production. “She’s the line that crosses through from the beginning to the end; she stays the same character from beginning to end.”
The audience has an interest in the young girl who becomes the center of attention.
“The audience is taking a journey with Clara,” Whelchel said. “It’s Clara’s story and the audience gets to be part of that.”
Girls selected for the role bring quirks and pieces of their own personalities to the portrayals.
“They’re both very enthusiastic,” Whelchel said of her Claras. “I think Nica’s Clara has a little bit more spice; she’s definitely a little bit more mischievous. And Allison’s Clara is a little bit more sweet and innocent. It’s great to see the differences between the two. They both make for very exciting performances.”
Myers agrees on the importance of the Clara role.
“I think there are many, many people of all ages, children and adults, who relate to her,” she said. “I think the general public thinks about the fact that it’s just children who relate to Clara until they sit in the darkened theater and they remember their childhood and their dreams around holiday time. And they think about their own sugarplums dancing in their heads.”
Dancing skills are required. So are acting skills.
“That’s a very big part of choosing a Clara,” Myers said. “Also, she has to be fearless because she does a lot of lifts with adults. And not so easy lifts with adults. She’s on the stage a lot, so she has to very disciplined and committed to rehearsals and to her partners.”
‘I want to be her someday’
The Mouse King and his minions will never take over Albany Berkshire Ballet. It would be like playing a soccer team — 15 dancers are working on the Clara role this autumn.
Twelve-year-old Albany residents Sophia Grant and Katarina Flik are the senior Claras who will perform at shows scheduled for the Center for the Performing Arts at the Empire State Plaza, The Egg, on Sunday, Dec. 16. Eliza Lindberg, 11, of East Chatham; Caroline Dollar, 11, of Albany; and Ellis Broderick, 12, of Bennington, Vt. will also play the role in earlier shows booked for Vermont and Massachusetts. Ava Doyle, 13, of Guilderland is an understudy.
Grant, a seventh-grader at St. Pius X Catholic School in Loudonville, is glad to continue a family tradition. Her sister Haley was a Berkshire Ballet Clara in 2007.
“When you’re younger, you look up to it,” said Flik, in the seventh grade at Albany Academy for Girls. “It’s like you’ve accomplished something. All the little girls say, ‘I want to be her someday.’ ”
Broderick has performed as a party girl in past Berkshire shows. “I was, like, really happy this year when I got Clara,” she said.
It can be a challenge for young girls from 2012 to play characters who are living in Victorian times. “A long time ago, they were much more proper than we are now,” Broderick said. “Back then, everybody was more polite. It’s just fun acting.”
Doyle, a seventh-grader at Farnsworth Middle School, is learning the part without any pressure. She has switched sides for the shows, leaving the Clara sorority for a spot in the mouse army. But next year, she’ll already know the Clara dances, and perhaps have an advantage over other mice hoping to move up in the ranks.
“We do 15 shows; there are 15 separate Claras,” said Madeline Cantarella Culpo, the company’s founder and artistic director. “It’s their dream. We audition children we think can act and have an innocent quality. If you’re too old, you can’t do it. If you’re too young, you’re not ready. It definitely is a personality thing, and each of these children have a unique personality and they bring it to the performance.”
Young dancers at Adirondack Ballet Theater look forward to the role. This holiday season, Natalie Davey and Allison Harris have secured the plum assignments for shows at the Charles R. Wood Theater in Glens Falls on Dec. 8 and 9.
“To me, it’s surprising because I’ve only been dancing here not that long,” said Davey, 12, of Lake George, a seventh-grader at Warrensburg Central School. “Everybody in the dance center gets their turn, so I was thrilled that I got it.”
Part of the thrill is the joy that comes with playing Clara.
“You get to be the center of attention and act a lot younger than you are,” Davey said. “And you get so happy.”
Davey can do happy.
“When you’re Clara, every time you walk into the room you have to turn your happy-little-girl-excited-about-everything face on,” she said. “I’ve done plays before and there’s not nearly as much expression as there is with this role.”
No problems with mice, either. In the Adirondack production, they’re all between ages 4 and 6. “They’re so cute,” Davey said.
Harris, 11, who lives in Queensbury and is a sixth-grade student at Queensbury Middle School, describes her stage alter-ego as a happy-go-lucky kid.
“She’s young and she’s having fun,” Harris said. “She gets to go through the experience of going through the land of sweets and meeting all the characters in the land of sweets.”
The ginger “children” are among Harris’ favorite ballet sweethearts. “It’s a really fun, happy dance,” she said.
Adirondack Ballet co-artistic director Diane L. LaBruzzo knows kids love stepping into Clara’s slippers.
“It’s because of the prestige,” she said. “The whole ballet is built around this character. They’ll be small mice, angels, then children in the party scene, gingersnaps . . . and then Clara.”