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Seattle’s Very Young Dancers

Courtesy of Ron Wurzer

At PNB's Nutcracker auditions

The windows between the school lobby and the rehearsal studio have been covered with paper. Anxious parents are restricted to a waiting area at the front of the school.

The back door opens, and in they file: 125 girls in light blue, teal and purple leotards, and five boys in black tights and white tops. Some shift nervously as they line up, making an effort to keep their backs straight and their smiles on.

These young dancers have already waited in line, been measured, and had numbers pinned to their leotards. They are as ready as they ever will be to audition for Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of the Nutcracker, America's most beloved ballet.

Three of the girls in this room will be chosen to dance the lead role of Clara.

Peter Boal, PNB's artistic director, opens the audition by reminding students that there are more auditioning than there are available parts, and many of them won't be selected. "Don't feel bad," he says. "Come back and audition next year."

The dancers, all between the ages of 10 and 14, face a formidable panel: Boal is joined by Kent Stowell and Francia Russell, founding directors of the company and the originators of PNB's distinctive Nutcracker, and Anne Dabrowski, one of the company's three ballet masters.

Nearly 1,000 students are in the Pacific Northwest Ballet School, which has studios in both Seattle and Bellevue. Of those, 260 auditioned this year, and 209 were cast in the Nutcracker.

PNB tries to cast as many of the students as possible, and Boal makes the point that most of the students are thrilled just to be in the show.

"We have a tremendous number that show up to the auditions and they know all they can get is fighting mice," he says. "And they love to be the fighting mice."

Otto Neubert, one of the ballet masters, shows the first group of girls a combination of steps. The students dance, one at a time, across the diagonal length of the studio. Some of the girls mess up the steps, some forget to smile, some are just plain off the rhythm of the music.

Some, though, sparkle. Their faces beam, their feet move gracefully across the studio floor and they have what Boal calls "presence."

"(Clara) is the protagonist; the audience has to be drawn in through her," Boal tells me in a later interview. "They have to stand out from the group."

The Pacific Northwest Ballet has a lot riding on the Nutcracker. The show brings in between $5 and $6 million each year, accounting for about half the company's annual earned income.

As the dancers move across the floor, Dabrowski, Boal, Russell and Stowell jot quick notations on writing pads already populated with columns of numbers representing the dancers who are auditioning.

The panel confers. Then, Boal tells the performers: "We'd like a couple of you to come forward and just stand in a row… 96… 99… 108… 110… 141… 143… 148… 156… 163…18…. and 189. And, 129 and 130."

Russell leans forward and talks with Boal and Dabrowski. After a pause, Boal adds, "136 and 142."

Gary Tucker, PNB's media relations manager, tells me that being called forward doesn't mean the girls will get the most coveted parts. Still, there's tension in the air. Getting called forward means something.

Some of the dancers who aren't called look anxious, some whisper to their neighbors. After a few minutes of discussion, Boal dismisses the line-up of dancers, and they move on to the students in the fifth level at the school, those in the purple leotards. They start with a step that is clearly associated with Clara, dancing in a diagonal. As before, Boal calls students forward into a line – 29 of them this time. He shuffles them around a bit and then they are dismissed.

At 1:45, about an hour and a half after the audition began, Boal says, "OK, you guys, you did great. That will be all."

And it's over.

Five days later, at 5 p.m., the casting lists go up on the wall. Students and parents gather around as the papers are pinned up, scanning the alphabetical list for their names. This year's Claras are: Amelia Jay of Seattle, Claira Smith of Seattle, and Isabella Alabi of Mill Creek.

All of this year's Claras are 12 years old and have been studying at the PNB School since they were 6 or 7. On top of their ballet classes five days a week, they will need to attend evening rehearsals in Seattle twice a week and each will dance in 13 performances of the Nutcracker in McCaw Hall.

"I always wanted to do the Nutcracker," Amelia tells me. "Whenever I went when I was little I saw their pretty hair and pretty dresses and wanted to do that."

She adds: "I also remember Clara dancing with the Nutcracker, and I always wanted to do that … the first time I came I wanted to be Clara."

This is a sentiment echoed by the other two Claras this year. For many a young dancer, Nutcracker was the first ballet they ever saw, and it's a memory that stuck with them.

Amelia began dance classes when she was 4 years old, and has been dancing at PNB since she was in first grade. She has been a "party girl" twice, dancing in the big party in the first act, and a small servant at the Pasha's Palace in the second act. She is dancing Clara in addition to keeping up in her APP classes at Hamilton Middle School in Seattle.

Claira started ballet at Cornish School of the Arts, but moved to PNB when she was 6 years old, in large part to have a chance at dancing in their production of Nutcracker.

"One time my mom took me to PNB's Nutcracker, and I really wanted to be in it," says Claira.

Like the other girls, Claira has been in the Nutcracker a number of times before, as a party girl, a small servant, baby mouse and in Toy Theater, a role that generally goes to some of the best young dancers. She attends the Seattle Waldorf School, where she thrives on the arts-centric curriculum.

Isabella is in her seventh year at the school, following in the footsteps of an older sister. She has knockout dimples that light up her smile. She also has the most daunting commute. Isabella lives in Mill Creek, takes classes five days a week at the PNB's school in Bellevue and, twice a week, gets driven to Seattle for rehearsals.

When does she do her homework? In the car.

"School work always comes first with me," she says. Isabella is in advanced classes in her middle school and two years ahead in math.

The Nutcracker rehearsals move at a fast clip. These girls have a lot to learn in the eight weeks between getting cast and dancing onto the stage for their first performance.

"It's such a tall order to teach these girls this role," Boal says. "I'm constantly impressed by how they rise to the challenge."

In an October rehearsal, Dabrowski takes the girls through the steps, urging them to jump higher on their leaps, reminding them to show the audience how much fun they're having by smiling. The rehearsal is about more than just learning the steps; it's about conveying the emotion and drama of the story.

When they get to the part in the story where Clara is enchanted with Drosselmeir's mechanical doll and wants desperately to have her, Dabrowski shows the girls how to stretch one arm toward the doll, then clasp their hands and move them towards their chests in an exaggerated gesture of pleading.

Isabella says she loves the acting involved in the Nutcracker – acting, Amelia adds, that doesn't require you to learn lines.

Do any of these girls see professional dance in their future?

"I don't think that far ahead," Amelia says. And the other girls nod in agreement. For the coming month, though, they all have their chance to shine.

Ruth Schubert is the managing editor of Seattle’s Child and never fully recovered from being told she was too tall to do ballet

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