Last December’s late-night raid began with great promise for Ashley Hyde and her friends — all mice in their annual production of “The Nutcracker” ballet.
Led by a giant rat, the band of mice had just snuck into the quiet living room set after the party scene ended, ready to pilfer and pester. That’s when the Nutcracker prince spoiled all the fun, setting the stage for the big battle scene.
Hyde and her mouse friends, performing in the 2012 version of Northeast Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” were on the losing side as toy soldiers routed the rodents.
For this year’s production, Hyde, an 8-year-old third-grader at Pashley Elementary School in Glenville, has switched teams. Her gray mouse costume passed on, Ashley will march onto the stage in the crimson, gold and black raiment of the Nutcracker’s toy soldier squadron for Northeast’s 2013 show, set for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at Proctors in Schenectady.
Toy soldiers have always been the good guys in the “Nutcracker,” and this year shows are being presented by dance companies in Schenectady, Saratoga Springs, Albany and Glens Falls. Kids will march — and twirl, leap and waltz in other roles — as the troupes prepare for their annual December visits.
The soldiers make their appearance after the elaborate party sequence in the first act, as the mystical Drosselmeyer has left and young Clara is relaxing after the holiday revelry.
“I think a lot of people want to know what’s going to happen,” said Darlene Myers, artistic director of Northeast Ballet.
“Are the mice going to take over? If we didn’t have the toy soldiers and the fearless Nutcracker to lead them into battle against the mice, where would Clara be? Her dream would become a nightmare.”
Hyde has enjoyed her promotion to the armed forces. “We had swords last year,” she said, of the standard-issue mouse weapon. “This year, I have a gun!”
They’re just plastic swords and long wooden guns, but Ashley is happy to be part of the favored team. In the history of “The Nutcracker,” the toy soldiers have never dropped a decision to the Rat King — sometimes Rat Queen, sometimes Mouse King or Queen.
Niskayuna’s Adam Gathen, 7, is one of Northeast’s dozen fighters. “It’s a lot of fun,” said Gathen, a second-grader at Hillside Elementary. “You get to point a gun at the mice. It’s cool in some different ways. . . . I like being in it.”
Brother soldier Jamison D’Arcy, 7, appreciates the small details that come with the role. “I like the gloves,” he said. “They’re white, and one of my favorite colors.”
The soldiers wear red jackets with a golden yellow cross pattern on front. Their black slacks come with red stripes running down the legs. They have military-style caps and red felt circles on their cheeks.
The Nutcracker prince, while the star of the show, is also a soldier himself. “This role is the role of a lifetime for any dancer,” said Freddy Ramirez of Waterford, who will dance the lead part. “The kids are super-talented, the direction is great. It’s a traditional Nutcracker. . . . You get that holiday feeling.”
Hyde has plenty of sister soldiers in the corps. Eight of the 12 mouse hunters are girls.
“Well, you know — women in the military these days,” Myers said. “We’re on the cutting edge here.”
Eve Whelchel, co-artistic director of Saratoga City Ballet, said her soldiers battle a Rat Queen. “We usually have between six to 10 soldiers. . . . This year we have eight,” she said, adding that the show is designed with young children in mind. Funny, whimsical elements are part of the production.
“When we fire our cannon, little pieces of confetti come out,” she said. “It’s something more enjoyable, so the children can get involved and not be afraid.”
Whelchel says the soldiers, usually around 10 years old, are key parts of the production. “They’re the heroes of the battle scene,” she said. “Everyone in our cast wants the Rat Queen defeated, so it’s exciting.”
A soldier role is also an important step for status in the Saratoga company. After performing as a soldier, Whelchel said, young actors turn 11 and are then allowed to audition for a role as a company dancer.
For now, they’re having fun in their red and black outfits.
“There’s a lot of marching, they have a lot of quick movements,” Whelchel said. “They’re the first line of defense, they’re protecting Clara and her Nutcracker.”
Madeline Cantarella Culpo, artistic director at Albany Berkshire Ballet, believes toy soldiers have always appealed to children — especially during the holiday season.
“I think over the centuries, toy soldiers have been important in children’s lives,” Culpo said. “Many years ago, families who didn’t have a lot for Christmas made toy soldiers out of paper or inexpensive wood. More well-do-to families had more ornate soldiers.”
She also believes children love to see the soldiers on the move, defending Clara against the mouse incursion.
“It’s a scene that’s exciting for the audience, music, dance-wise and light-wise,” she said. “It precedes the growing of the tree and the arrival of the snowflakes. It’s exciting for the children because they know what it’s going to lead up to.”
Like the Northeast production, most of the soldiers in Albany Berkshire’s “Nutcracker” are girls. To reach soldier status, they’ve graduated from the reindeer, angels and “polichinelle,” — small dancers who arrive with the dressy Mother Ginger — and are looking forward to larger roles in future productions.
The soldier girls and boys, like other members of the cast, have been rehearsing since October.
“They have to be on the music, they have to be precise,” Culpo said, adding that her soldiers must look stern and solemn when they’re repelling rodents. One of the soldiers is wounded during the attack, and taken off the stage on a stretcher.
“That’s when you don’t smile,” Culpo said. “We were doing rehearsals last week and I had to say, ‘Honey, you can’t smile here.’ ”
Fans of Tchaikovsky and toy soldiers can hear and see their favorites at these upcoming local presentations of “The Nutcracker.”
u Northeast Ballet, Proctors, Schenectady — 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. $50-$20. www.proctors.org
u Adirondack Ballet Theater, Charles R. Wood Theater, Glens Falls — 2:30 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15. $16. www.woodtheater.org
u Saratoga City Ballet, Skidmore College Dance Theater, Saratoga Springs — 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14; noon and 3 p.m Sunday, Dec. 15. $19-$13. brownpapertickets.com
u Albany Berkshire Ballet, The Egg, Albany — 1:30 and 5:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21. $38-$25. www.theegg.org