SCHENECTADY — December dancing days are here again for Niskayuna's Marisa Phillips and her friends.
"It's very elegant and beautiful and the costumes are very pretty," said Phillips, 13, an eighth-grader at Iroquois Middle School who this weekend will dance in Northeast Ballet's annual presentations of "The Nutcracker" at Proctors.
"And the music just gets me in the Christmas spirit," added Phillips, who will dance in the "Marzipan," "Snow" and "Flowers" sequences — all performed to Tchaikovsky's traditional compositions.
"Nutcracker" fans know the story: Young Clara attends a family Christmas party and receives a dancing "Nutcracker" doll from the mystical Drosselmeyer. There are dreams of magic kingdoms and graceful dances — and the fierce showdown between the living Nutcracker with the malevolent Rat King.
The MainStage shows will be held Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
This weekend's "Nutcracker" will be the 32nd holiday production staged by Northeast and artistic director Darlene Myers.
"We have some new choreography to look forward to in some of the variations and also the return of Lauren Lovette from New York City Ballet, which is always very exciting," Myers said. "She has become a wonderful young star with New York City Ballet, she was at SPAC this summer and she's bringing a new, young, up-and-coming star from New York City Ballet. His name is Jovani Furlan and this will be his first appearance with the company."
Lovette and Furlan will dance the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier.
Myers also said new costumes and lighting will also be part of her 2019 Nutcracker.
"We're doing a new light plot and Proctors has some new instruments on the light board, so that will be something to look forward to," Myers said. "Lighting is very, very important. It can really change the atmosphere of a scene you've been rehearsing for months, from something that is mundane to something that becomes spectacular.
"Proctors has always been wonderful with us in bringing their own creativity to the show," Myers added. "That's one of the things I enjoy because it really is a co-production with Northeast Ballet and Proctors."
Phillips is one of four Niskayuna dancers in the 150-member "Nutcracker" cast. All have been practicing routines since early fall.
Iris Liu, 12, a seventh-grader at Iroquois, will dance in the "Confections" variation.
"I like 'Confections' because of its costumes," said Liu. "The green of my skirt is hand-dyed, it was really cool for the costume people to tell us."
Liu, who has danced the roles of Clara, party child, gingerbread and young mouse in past shows, also enjoys the story in the ballet. She loves the magical elements.
Robbie Titsworth, 13, an eighth-grader at Van Antwerp Middle School, will portray a dancing doll in the Act 1 party scene. Like other dancers in the cast, Titsworth is experienced; he has played a party boy, soldier, and young Fritz — Clara's annoying brother — in past shows.
"It's a lot of fun, and I love dancing," Titsworth said. "I love being with my friends."
Nerves might have been a problem at other times, but not any more.
"I don't get too nervous anymore," Titsworth said. "I just calm myself down and warm up."
Like Phillips, Millie Ellenbogen will dance in the "Marzipan," "Snow" and "Flowers" variations.
"For me, personally, it's an opportunity to spread joy," said Ellenbogen, 14, a freshman at Niskayuna High School. "It can be tiring, but it's worth it in the end."
Ellenbogen also enjoyed performing during November's "Nutcracker Tea," shows in which company dancers performed show excerpts at the National Dance Museum in Saratoga Springs. Without all the theater lights, she was able to see looks of wonder on many children in the audience.
Bella Zonderman, 16, a junior at Niskayuna High School, will dance the elegant "Pas de Deux" segment with Lucas Rodriquez. "I love it," she said. "I love the music and I feel when I dance it, it transports me to another world."
Zonderman is in her ninth "Nutcracker," with roles as a young mouse, party girl, snowflake and flower, among others, on her resume. She hopes to continue dance, and plans to study musical theater in college.
Dancers from other local schools are also preparing for the holiday shows.
Grady Muscolino, a 14-year-old freshman at Shendehowa High School, will play the villain of the piece: As the evil Rat King, Muscolino will lead an army of hungry mice to the stage, and torment Clara as they pillage for Christmas presents and cheese.
Muscolino will also portray a party man and dance in the "Russian" variation.
"It's a lot of hard work, a lot of practice," said Muscolino, another veteran of the show. "I just really like the atmosphere of the studio ... it's a great environment to learn and pursue your dance career."
As the Rat King, Muscolino will be unrecognizable under the rodent's rubber mask. Even though nobody will ever notice, Muscolino will be making malevolent faces under the mask as he confronts the Nutcracker. He believes staying in character helps his performance.
In a recent practice session with Baker D'Arcy — understudy in the Nutcracker role — Muscolino practiced his pounces and stealth techniques. But D'Arcy also has been practicing, and is pretty good with a sword.
Still, Muscolino knows a lot of younger kids — in both the cast and the audience — look to the Rat King with a sense of awe.
Other dancers from the Capital Region explained their love for performing and their love for the show:
- "I like the magic it brings out this time of year and seeing the little kids in the audience," said Greg Trechel, 14, a freshman at Guilderland High School.
- "It's very fun and bright and upbeat," said D'Arcy, 15, a sophomore at Scotia-Glenville High School who will dance the "Chinese," "Russian" and "Spanish" variations.
- "I've been able to grow up with the company," said Lia Richter, 16, a junior at the Emma Willard School. "Every year I have a different role ... you're dancing with the same people and you develop really strong bonds."
- "One of the things I'm most excited to see is the snow fly when I'm dancing," said Mimi Leon, 17, a senior at Emma Willard, who will dance the "Snow Queen," "Spanish" and "Flowers." She's also a fan of the "Frozen" movies: "Elsa and I are like the same person," she said, of the icy heroine of the films. Leon also loves the fact that she is following in the footsteps of past dancers she admired, from shows past.
- Isabella Baaki, 16, a junior at Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons High School, will dance "Marzipan," "Snow" and "Flowers." In December, she loves the "Nutcracker" music. "The Christmas songs go through my head," she said.