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The little dancers who make “the nutcracker” sparkle

If last year’s production proved anything, it was that size and spirit. The smaller the children are, the bigger the stage seems and gives the story its magic. Yes, there are unforgettable adult characters: the Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop, Mother Ginger and the Mouse King. But the children are the heart of ballet, the glue – what leads us on this path feeling the emotions.

Rejoice this year! The tiny bodies are back – although they have little experience because of the pandemic. Of the 126 in the production (there are two casts), 108 are newcomers to the show.

Dena Abergel, director of children’s repertoire at City Ballet, sees The Nutcracker, which opens Friday at Lincoln Center, as Balanchine’s training ground: teaching kids at City Ballet’s affiliate school how to be performers.

Generally, they start out as angels and progress to more technically advanced pieces – like the candy canes and the polichinella – until they grow old (or outgrow the costumes). Along the way, they learn choreography and professionalism.

But this year, with so many starting from scratch, is different. “None of the lead dancers and most of the dancers from her time had never been in ‘The Nutcracker,'” said Abergel. “I’ve never had a Marie who doesn’t even know the party scene, or a prince who doesn’t know how the ballet works. That just never happened before.”

As expected, this young generation is enthusiastic. Eleanor Murphy, 9, who alternates the role of bunny with Tiaga Emmer, 8, first saw the City Ballet performance when she was 3 years old. “After the show, I screamed because I didn’t want to go home,” she said. “I took a picture with one of the snowflakes, that was cool. I’ve always wanted to be in The Nutcracker, and now I am in ‘The Nutcracker.'”

She wrapped her arms around herself and giggled. (It’s such a year. Cuteness is next level.)

Abergel delights in the fresh approach of these children; Because they didn’t grow up in the production, they’re less likely to imitate what they’ve seen other kids do. “They really learn from us,” she said. “In terms of my role, it’s really challenging because they don’t know about rehearsals. You know nothing about the stage. You know nothing about performances. So it’s not just about teaching the angels.”

The role of the angel teaches young dancers diagonals – how to cross the stage and form a circle. It teaches them how to count to the music. Now that means she’s giving students new to The Nutcracker a crash course in all about standing on stage, rehearsing, learning choreography, remembering and putting things together from a rehearsal learn to the next.”

This also made the casting unusual that year, especially when it came to choosing Marie, the young heroine of the ballet. Abergel and Arch Higgins, deputy children’s repertoire director at City Ballet, could not base their decisions on size and past experience. And they had little grasp of the children’s dramatic skills, which is crucial for Marie, who helps carry the ballet.

Abergel invented acting sequences based on the choreography “just to see who can convey emotion and who can tell a story,” she said. “It was very clear who stood out: Arch and I looked at each other and said, ‘Okay, let’s go.'”

Who has the part? Two good friends, both 10, with completely different personalities: the spirited, dramatic Zofia Mendez and the quieter and dreamy Caroline O’Hagan. (Abergel loves it when that happens: it shows the world, she said, that you don’t have to be a certain type to be right for the role.) Zofia found out from her mother that she was going to play Marie. “My mother asked, ‘Zofia, who is Marie?’ because she wasn’t very familiar. I started crying and my mom was so confused.”

“‘This role is incredible,'” Zofia told her mother. “So she started crying with me.”

O’Hagan first saw The Nutcracker when she was 2½ years old. “I would always come home pretending to be Marie,” she said. “I never allowed my mom to put down the ‘Nutcracker’ she bought for me.”

Carrying the ballet on her little shoulders is one thing. Marie’s silk taffeta dress for the festive party scene in Act I presents another challenge that is less talked about: its weight and stiffness. “When I go to sleep,” Zofia said, “I dream of myself in the heaviest dress, falling in the middle of the stage. Oh my quality.”

Abergel is nervous about other things: The coronavirus is still circulating, which means children could be pulled from the show at short notice. “Let’s say it was Marie,” she said. “We would call Marie from last year. But that Marie from last year is my size, so that’s not an option anymore.”

This height: just under 5 feet 7 inches. “So I think just prepare them as best you can every day,” Abergel said. “Because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”