Lauren Tenney was a toddler when her mother took her to see The Nutcracker for the first time. Not long after the ballet's famous Clara awoke from her dream, Tenney announced one of her own.
"I want to be like the big girls," Tenney remembered saying, referring to the principal female dancers in Tchaikovsky's classic Christmas ballet.
That was the moment she became a dancer.
To jump-start her career, Tenney's parents even fudged their daughter's age a little when she was 4 so she could start training at a ballet academy in Toledo, Ohio, that required its students to be 5.
When Tenney was 16, her parents supported her move to Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Connecticut. The next year, she went to New York City, which eventually paved the way for her professional membership in the Lexington Ballet.
Both professional ballet companies in Lexington — the other is Kentucky Ballet Theatre — are presenting The Nutcracker this holiday season. The companies alternate optimal venue space each year. This year, the Lexington Opera House will host the Lexington Ballet production, beginning Dec. 10. Kentucky Ballet Theatre will mount one public performance, on Friday in Transylvania University's Haggin Auditorium.
Now among the "big girls," Tenney, 22, is playing one of three Sugar Plum Fairies in the Lexington Ballet production, a significant milestone for female ballet dancers. It's also an opportunity to put a unique artistic stamp on a classic principal role.
"It's a very soft role," Tenney says when discussing the appeal of the character. "There's so much that has to be portrayed; you can really explore character development and have a lot of artistic freedom. Although the ballet is traditional in that we do it every year, it is not traditional in that there was never a set version of choreography for it."
The lack of set choreography allows ballet companies to present unique, reimagined artistic stances. The infusion of creativity and inspiration keep dancers' relationships to the work fresh.
For Tenney and other dancers, rising to a principal lead is not all fairy dust and snowflakes. Almost every dance professional, Tenney included, will at some point say, "It's a lot of hard work."
Hard work indeed. Grueling physical demands are a constant job hazard.
"Our job is to make it look easy," says Kelsey VanTine, a company dancer for Kentucky Ballet Theatre who will be a Sugar Plum Fairy in that company's production.
"We all seem graceful onstage, but the minute we walk into the wings, we are breathing heavy and everything hurts," she says of the physical toll of dancing. "It takes crazy stamina."
Because The Nutcracker is a popular Christmas tradition, with most ballet companies mounting annual productions, it has become a staple of every dancer's permanent repertoire.
What's more, the ballet calls for a large cast that can cater to dancers of varying experience and skill levels. As a result, each year's casting functions as a kind of rite of passage for aspiring dancers, not to mention an unofficial résumé booster.
The youngest dancers might start out in the smallest roles, each year hoping to advance in the ranks. Often, the trajectory of a dancer's Nutcracker roles is indicative of his or her growth as a dancer.
Lexington Ballet's artistic director, Luis Dominguez, casts the smallest roles with dancers when they are 7, filling dozens of supporting roles with pre-professional dancers from the ballet's student academy. That process is used by many ballet companies, including Kentucky Ballet Theatre.
"You might start out as a little angel or one of the tiny mice," Dominquez says, "and the next year or two, depending on your skill level, you might move onto a toy soldier, then the next year a harlequin and eventually, if you are talented and work hard enough, perhaps a principal dancer."
Says Kentucky Ballet Theatre artistic director Norbe Risco of dancers' progression in The Nutcracker: "It's a ladder that they have to climb with their skills and talent. They have something to look for every year, something to reach for.
Say one year you don't get the part you want; you practice even harder to get it next year."
A fevered commitment to perfection and self-improvement is another job requirement shared my most professional dancers.
"I never approach the same work twice," Tenney says of her now repeat performance in the role of Sugar Plum Fairy. "If I am a year older, I should be a year better."
VanTine echoes that sentiment: "It's fun to get out there and try to improve over the year before. ... Maybe you can hold your leg a little higher or pirouette better. You try to make yourself better than the year before."