Is there a more beloved ballet than The Nutcracker? Dance fans have three chances to see local productions of the Christmas classic this December, and all of them open this weekend.
In anticipation of this holiday flurry, we sat down with the six young dancers who are living what many of them called "every little girl's dream": dancing the role of Clara, the young girl who dreams that the nutcracker she has been given on Christmas Eve comes to life as a prince and takes her through Tchaikovsky's wintery kingdom of candy, fairies and love.
Kentucky Ballet Theatre
Caity Frederick, 11, Olivia Connelly, 11, and Breanna Justus, 10, share a single piano bench, holding hands and giggling as they speak about the excitement of playing Clara.
Breanna began dancing when she was 3 years old. Has it been her dream to play Clara ever since? "Oh, yes," she says, beaming and almost rising out of her seat as she squeezes Olivia's hand.
Olivia has seen or danced in so many productions of the ballet that she can't remember which came first. Her favorite scene in The Nutcracker is the party where Clara's godfather, toymaker Herr Drosselmeyer, brings Clara the carved wooden nutcracker.
Caity was a comparatively late bloomer. She didn't start dancing until she was 4 years old. Her reasons for wanting to dance Clara are practical and sincere. "I wanted to dance the main part. And I like her dress. Pink is my favorite color," she said.
Is there competition among the Claras?
"No," assures Breanna. "We encourage each other."
But that doesn't mean there isn't time to enjoy stardom now and then.
"I was a cherub" she says, referring to a corps role often danced by children. "I used to look up at the top of the cake and see Clara looking down at us. Now they are looking up at me."
What's next for these young artists?
Breanna says she wants "to go to Russia to teach orphans about Jesus and dancing."
Caity's ambitions are no less global. "I want to swim with a dolphin," she said, "and take care of baby pandas. And I want to be a princess. It's an important job."
Olivia's dream is simpler, but still moving: "I just want to dance as much as I can, until I can't dance anymore."
Bluegrass Youth Ballet
Connor Perry, 10, was 2, when she performed in her first Nutcracker as one of the children of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Alexa Rose, 13, has been performing in the ballet since she was 3, and both dancers have dreamed of dancing the lead for a long time.
"You look up to Clara. She's a princess," Alexa says.
They approach the technical challenges of the role with confidence.
"There are lots of partnering and lifts, ... lots of solos," Connor says. "I expected them to be scary, but they're not." She admits that the lifts can be "kind of painful, sometimes. But it's still fun."
Alexa's favorite scene is the Waltz of the Flowers. (Her mother, Jill, agrees. "That one makes me tear up," she says.)
Connor's favorite scene is the Snow Waltz.
"The music is so classical, and there is a blizzard of snow."
Both dancers agree that Bluegrass Youth Ballet's production is unique: It is being presented in one act, so it may be easier for young ballet fans to take in.
"It's all about the kids," Alexa says. There are no professional "ringers" playing the leads.
Connor says, "Kids might see our production and get inspired, ... maybe to join a company themselves."
She sounds a little inspired herself when she describes the story: The Nutcracker "is a beautiful dream. ... I would want to have that dream on Christmas Eve."
It's Saturday afternoon and the Cats are playing the Tarheels across town, but at ArtsPlace, every studio is filled with activity. The halls and stairwells are lined with dance bags, school books, and moms altering costumes, as dozens of tiny soldiers and fairies swarm everywhere. Lexington Ballet's artistic director, Luiz Dominguez, has the look of a harried ringmaster as he directs a battalion of mice on the attack.
In the eye of this hurricane of creative energy stands Clara: professional dancer Anna Craig.
At age 23, she is a seasoned member of the Lexington Ballet company, but she looks much younger.
"I started dancing when I was 6," she says, but she didn't grow up dreaming of playing Clara. "I really didn't fall in love with ballet until I was 16."
But ballet was to become her life's passion.
"I just want to play everything. ... I skipped college to dance," she says, "And I want to keep dancing as long as I can."
Craig's adult approach to Clara is different than the children who traditionally play the role.
"She goes through so many emotions. She starts as a giddy little girl, ... then she falls in love," she says. "You remember that first time? ... Playing Clara is like falling in love every time you dance."
In Craig's mind, the magic that turns the nutcracker into a prince is Clara's love.
She feels a special obligation to an audience who may have seen The Nutcracker dozens of times.
"My goal is to make them feel like they've never see it before ... to give them two hours of magic."