photos by Kevin & Dawn Cobello
The way I see it, the Greater Niagara Ballet Co.'s production of "The Nutcracker" is split into three sections: beginning, middle and end.
Now, I'm sure that's not a revelation for those who've seen the show before, or for those about to watch it for the first time on Dec. 10-11.
But, what is newsworthy is the parallel between these three "Nutcracker" acts (shown in two parts), and the dancers bringing the classic fairy tale to the stage.
Call it life imitating art, or vice versa. Whatever the case, this year's performance is oddly similar to the reality behind the curtain.
In the Beginning ...
The beginning of "The Nutcracker" is new and exciting. On stage, a grand celebration is unfolding at the Stahlbaum home, and tricks and turns await partygoers around every corner. Parents and children, caught up in the celebration, break forth into dancing and games.
For Wheatfield's Kelly O'Neill and her daughters, Jessica and Lilianna Kinde, their first foray into "The Nutcracker" very much resembles this party scene. ... Which they're actually dancing in. ... So insert "Twilight Zone" music, I guess.
O'Neill, once a performer herself, said this experience is both nerve-wracking and exciting. She was somewhat caught off guard during her first rehearsal three weeks ago when the tricks and turns were, quite literally, tricks and turns.
"I stink really bad," she said then of her dancing.
Fortunately, the scene's celebratory mood has caught up with her -- as has Lilianna, who likes to sneak in hugs with her real mom when the pretend parents are called upon to offer refuge to their pretend children midway through the party.
O'Neill has now caught up with her steps, allowing her to break forth into her own bit of exhilaration.
"Everything can be fun," she says.
In the Middle ...
Now, in the middle of "The Nutcracker," Clara, having endured the loss of a beloved doll to her mischievous brother, defeats the evil Mouse King and is whisked away to a magical land. Once there, she's the center of a cavalcade of magical performers.
That's kind of what's happened to Olivia Duke and Lily Traver.
Minus the sword fights, of course.
The two dancers, splitting time as Clara, have given up their free time -- not to mention their toys -- and overcome stiff competition to land and perform the lead role in "The Nutcracker."
Olivia, almost 11, of Youngstown, and Lily, 9, of LaSalle, worked tirelessly this fall to set themselves apart from other dancers their age.
"It's a lot of extra work because you have to work 10 times harder -- because you're on the stage 10 times more than you usually are," Olivia says.
Their reward is twofold. As Clara, both will be taken to center stage in Act II as the GNBC's Corps de Ballet and guest performers Tonya J. Milne and Irek Muchalski perform just for them. Moreover, both girls are afforded the opportunity to dance with their studio's top ballerinas.
"It's really great. I like being (Clara). It's a lot of fun," Olivia says.
"It's really cool; I like it. It's really fun," Lily notes.
The second part of their reward is the looks each receives from dancers about the same or just below them in age. Both Olivia and Lily have noticed they've become role models.
"Littler kids look up to me now. ... It's different because I'm usually used to looking up at older people," Olivia says.
Lily suggests the newfound fandom is the result of her and Olivia's role in showing these young dancers the ropes.
"It feels really cool, because then I know I'm helping someone," she says of her celebrity status and the opportunity to teach her classmates.
GNBC Artistic Director Beverley Feder says her two Claras "are an absolute delight. They have a stage presence. They have passion for ballet.
"They have a special personality that I'm sure will bring a special sparkle to our ‘Nutcracker.' "
In the End ...
At the end of "The Nutcracker," Clara and her accomplices (Sugar Plum Fairy; various princesses; snow flakes) take a victory lap, of sorts, before returning to "the real world."
For 17-year-old Alexa Luczak of Lewiston, this "Nutcracker" performance is her victory lap. The Lewiston-Porter High School senior is headed off to college next fall, likely downstate or even in another state, and won't have an opportunity to participate in 2011.
"I love it so much," she says of "The Nutcracker." "We're all sisters, and we have a lot of fun. ... I can't imagine not having it in my life."
"It's like, ‘What do I do now?' " Luczak says. "It depresses me to think about it." ... But, "I'm sure I'll be really busy with homework."
While victory laps are often rather easygoing -- waving, smiling, waving some more -- Luczak's last stand includes roles as drummer, snowflake, candy cane, Arabian princess, lead Russian and, most importantly, Dew Drop Fairy, which, she says, is "huge for me (in my last year)."
At a recent rehearsal, Luczak was called upon to be the drummer's box.
"Drummer, box -- I do it all," she says with a laugh.
It's for that reason, and because of her talent, of course, that Luczak, a one-time Clara, netted an unusually large number of solos in this year's "Nutcracker" show.
"I was extremely excited," Luczak says of landing the roles. "I feel like the busier I am, the more fun it is and the more exciting it is."
Feder says, "She's earned the right to be doing the roles she's doing this year."
"All I can say is she is beautiful," Feder notes. "She is a beautiful dancer to watch on stage."
When describing Luczak's personality and stage presence, Feder uses phrases such as "always up," "fun," "mature and helpful."
"We're going to miss her very much," she says.
Luczak plans to study dance in college, probably as a minor. If and when she returns to the stage, "I would probably try to open my own dance studio or give lessons some other place," she says.
"The Nutcracker" is on stage Friday, Dec. 10, and Saturday, Dec. 11, at the Niagara Falls High School Performing Arts Center.