The Nutcracker is perhaps one of the most iconic ballets of all time, in large part because it has become an annual holiday tradition at ballet companies around the world since its debut more than a century ago.
For dancers, performing in The Nutcracker is an ongoing rite of passage that marks turning points in their careers and is a permanent part of their repertoire.
This year, professional dancers at Lexington's two ballet companies, Lexington Ballet and Kentucky Ballet Theatre, continue to challenge themselves by developing new skills that will dazzle audiences but also maintain the tradition of The Nutcracker as a platform for professional development.
"I have been in The Nutcracker since I was 5 years old," says Megan Coleman Stuart, a principal at Lexington Ballet who is playing the Sugar Plum Fairy this year.
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"I went through the ranks of Baby Ginger Snaps all the way up to Clara, but in Lexington we called it Marie," Stuart says.
The "ranks" to which Stuart refers is another part of the ballet's appeal to companies with extensive education programs, like those in Lexington. The large scope of the ballet and the enormous variety of characters means there is a role for even the smallest dancer, with performers earning more difficult and prominent roles as they advance.
The 4- and 5-year-olds are routinely cast as Baby Angels, who always "steal the show," said Luis Dominguez, Lexington Ballet's artistic director.
"You can't compete with that cuteness," he jokes.
But for both companies' professional dancers, they left such parts behind years ago in exchange for principal roles that challenge them as dancers.
Kelsey Van Tine, who is playing the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Snow Queen in Kentucky Ballet Theatre's production of The Nutcracker, has been dancing in the show since she was 6.
"I used to drool over the Sugar Plum Fairy when I was 6 years old — it's what every little girl dreams of," says Van Tine, who, like Stuart, has risen through the "ranks" during her career.
"My first year I was an Angel and then I did Harlequin, Chinese and Candy Canes," Van Tine says, referring to the names of iconic roles that Nutcracker insiders immediately recognize. "When I got to KBT, I did Flowers, Snow, Dew Drop and eventually Sugar Plum Fairy, and now Snow Queen as well."
In other words, Van Tine has danced almost every role available to female dancers.
"The Nutcracker is in our bodies," she says. "I feel like I've been doing The Nutcracker my whole life."
Van Tine and Stuart say the way they prevent artistic boredom is by continuing to challenge themselves each year. In a sense, The Nutcracker is a career-long process of rehearsal and performing.
"Every year when we learn a new piece or add a new element to our repertoire," Van Tine says, "you can play with the music a little bit more because the choreography almost comes natural with the music."
Stuart says, "I feel like I bring a lot more maturity than I have before. The Sugar Plum Fairy should be very ethereal, fairylike and soft, and I feel like through the years I've just grown and gotten better."
Stuart says she is working on making her Sugar Plum Fairy even more delicate, a challenge because she describes herself as more of a "powerhouse" dancer.
She also is embracing more challenging partner work in her scenes' famous pas de deux.
"We tried to add more exciting lifts and turns, including an over-the-head arabesque press," Stuart says.
"I always try to play to the strengths of the dancers," Dominguez says, echoing a sentiment shared by KBT artistic director Norbe Risco.
"There are new challenging variations for the dancers each year," Risco says. "I don't want to make it easy for them, because there is no point in having a professional company if the dancers do not grow."
IF YOU GO
■ Lexington Ballet: 2 p.m. Dec. 7, 8. EKU Center for the Arts, Richmond. $25-$35; available at (859) 622-7469 or Ekucenter.com. Lexingtonballet.org.
■ Kentucky Ballet Theatre: 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 14, 21; 2 p.m. Dec. 15, 22. Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St. $16-$32, $16 ages 2-12, free ages 1 and younger. Available at (859) 252-5245 or (859) 277-2227. Kyballet.com.
■ The Nutcracker in One Act by Bluegrass Youth Ballet: 7 p.m. Dec. 20, 3 p.m. Dec. 21. Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. $14-$17. Available at (859) 257-4929 or Singletarycenter.com. Bluegrassyouthballet.com.
■ Royal Opera House Ballet on movie screens. 7 p.m. Dec. 17. Cinemark Fayette Mall, 3800 Mall Rd. $12-$14. Fathomevents.com.