In the first year Zara Bradsliptz took to the stage as a cast member in Alberta Ballet’s Nutcracker, she played a mouse.
“Which is kind of the first role you do when you’re about nine years old,” Bradsliptz explained.
At dress rehearsal for the production’s opening day in Edmonton, about 20 little mice creep and crawl their way on stage in a dream-like sequence with the show’s star character, Clara.
“The short people do that one,” she laughed.
Now, three years later, Bradsliptz has climbed the ranks of the children’s roles and now plays a party girl. This year, about 100 local dancers – aged eight to seventeen – from 26 different dance studios play the parts of mice, rats, soldiers and party kids.
They were cast into their roles in September and must adhere to strict rehearsal schedules and standards.
“You can pretty much see what life is like in a company,” said Bradsliptz, who one day dreams to dance the role of Clara as a principal dancer with Alberta Ballet.
The Nutcracker production provides a pretty standard hierarchy when it comes to moving through the ranks of the dance world.
“My first role in The Nutcracker, when I was a young girl, was party girl,” explained Alberta Ballet company member Jennifer Gibson.
Her and her twin sister Alex have played virtually every character in the show. For the second year in a row, Jennifer has held the coveted role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
“I remember being in the party scene and seeing the Sugar Plum Fairy warming up backstage,” she said, adding that for her, it was a moment that fuelled her drive to succeed.
“This is my second year doing Sugar Plum Fairy and it’s kind of amazing to look back and see how far I have come.”
As Gibson warmed up for dress rehearsal in the backstage wings, a group of 20 or so toy soldiers practice their spacing under the direction of artistic director Jean Grande-Maitre.
“For a lot of these kids, it’ll be the first time they’ve ever seen a ballerina in a tutu,” Grande-Maitre said just prior to rehearsal.
“We have to make it a magical experience for them.”
At dress rehearsal, the stakes are high. After months of weekend rehearsals, the young dancers finally practice their moves as the multi-million dollar set pieces fly on and off the stage.
“We have two hours only to integrate them into the stage, with the cannons going off and the scenery going up and down,” Grande-Maitre explained.
You can just imagine their excitement on the night of the first curtain call.
“They get to dance with our company dancers to a live orchestra, it’s something they’ll never forget. “
It’s fast paced, it’s demanding and it requires a level of professionalism unparalleled elsewhere in the children’s dance world. But the seasoned dancers look back on their Nutcracker memories fondly.
“I just remember being wide-eyed the whole time,” said Gibson.
The production is a holiday tradition as special for the audience as it is the dancers.
“Christmas and Nutcracker have been synonymous for me since I was 10 years old. I don’t know how to separate the two of them,” Gibson said.
“As soon as I hear Nutcracker music, it means Christmas is coming.”
Eleven-year-old Bradsliptz agreed.
“It wouldn’t be Christmas without Nutcracker.”
The show runs until Sunday Dec. 11 in Edmonton and from Dec. 16-24 in Calgary.