The Little Ballet Theatre annually presents, on the Astoria High School stage, one of the most impressive productions of “The Nutcracker” that you’re ever likely to see. Perhaps, like me, you wonder as you watch the snowflakes, the snow princess, and all the other characters, what it takes to dance “The Nutcracker,” and why a youthful dancer would join the cast year after year.
The answer to the second question is easy. “It’s a tradition,” says 15-year-old Claire Helligso. “It wouldn’t feel like Christmas if you didn’t do ‘The Nutcracker,’” adds Emily Gjovik, also 15. Helligso, of Astoria, and Gjovik, of Naselle, have both been dancing in The Little Ballet Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” since they were 7, the youngest age allowed.
“We’ve been doing it so long that it’s like family,” says their friend Brooke Cross, 15, of Astoria. “It’s exciting, but sad when it ends.” Allie Berger, 13, also of Astoria, agrees: “It really goes by fast.”
“The Nutcracker” is a fantasy that has something for every child, from talking toys to a villain or two. Behind that shining phantasmagoria is a mundane reality of hard work, from construction of sets to repairing costumes to raising money for the live orchestra. A big part of it all is the training and hard work represented by every dancer on the stage.
All four girls became dancers in much the same way. “Everybody’s mom takes them to ballet,” says Helligso, “but not everyone stays with it. It can’t be a hobby; it’s a life.” And they were all immediately entranced by “The Nutcracker” when they first saw it as small children. “You look up to the older girls,” says Berger, “and then you are one.”
All four girls are obviously excited about dancing, and they seem mature beyond their years. They have to be, and this is the answer to the first question I posed. Each one takes dance classes eight to 10 hours a week, and unlike a sport that lasts one season, these girls dance all year, taking dance camps during summer when the Maddox studio is closed. During “The Nutcracker” season, which begins in mid-September, they begin six more hours of classes every Saturday, and add more classes on Tuesdays as the performance draws closer. Each girl has multiple parts to dance, as snowflake, dream fairy, lady-in-waiting, Chinese, Spanish, Arabian, Reed Flute, Snow Princess. If there’s a part to be danced, other than the Nutcracker himself, these girls have danced it. As Gjovik says, “We live here, but it’s fun.”
“You just need to know how to balance things,” says Helligso. “As you get older it becomes a habit. Even though it’s a lot of work I love it. It’s my favorite thing.”
“My life is here,” says Cross, and Helligso adds, “Our friends are here; we hang out with our friends here.”
“It’s a good way to escape from everyday,” says Berger.
“Especially for the small kids,” says Cross. “And we’re really in touch with our community and our fundraisers.”
They’ve all thought about life after high school, when they will leave “The Nutcracker” for college, and although they love to dance, none of these dancers plan to turn professional. “I can’t imagine life without dance,” says Helligso, and they all intend to take classes and might eventually become dance teachers but, “it’s hard to move from a small community to a large company,” Cross says. “I wouldn’t like the environment.”
That’s all in the future. “The Nutcracker” is now, and on Dec. 1 all the preparation will be over. The long hours and the hard work will be in the past, the curtain will rise, and once again Helligso, Gjovik, Cross, Berger and 71 other dancers, a 55-piece orchestra, and a 12-voice choir will present “The Nutcracker.”
“If you haven’t seen it, you’ll be amazed at how elaborate it is,” says Helligso, and she is absolutely correct. In a small town in Oregon, a wonder without which Christmas would not be the same, will come alive again this weekend. And in the audience will be children, their eyes alight with the magic of the spectacle, dreaming that they might someday be on that stage. And who knows? With desire matched by dedication they may soon dance before their younger siblings and friends, transporting them into the world of delight that is “The Nutcracker.”