Notching several firsts in the capital

Pa. Ballet takes its 'Nutcracker' to D.C.

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The Snowflakes perform during dress rehearsal of "The Nutcracker," which will open to Philadelphia audiences at the Academy of Music on Dec. 12. (Charles Fox / Staff Photographer)

WASHINGTON - "Stephanie, look him right in the eye," Roy Kaiser coaches over a public-address system. "You looooooooooove him!"

Not words most 11-year-old girls want to hear from an adult, especially in a theater filled with parents and schoolchildren, who immediately clap and call "wooo!"

But Stephanie Bandura grasps the arm of her prince - 13-year-old Peter Weil - adjusts her focus, and they proceed calmly.

Later Tuesday night, in the part of her young life, Stephanie would dance the opening steps in Pennsylvania Ballet's Nutcracker before a packed house at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The Opera House would be converted into a snowy scene in East Falls. Problem pirouettes from dress rehearsal would be performed easily.

It would be an evening of firsts.

The first time since 1994 that the company had been invited to present a full program at the prestigious theater.

The first time that George Balanchine's classic choreography had been performed in Washington - much to everyone's astonishment.

"I was very surprised when I learned that," says Kaiser, the company's artistic director. "I just assumed that it would've maybe been taken down there when Mr. Balanchine was still alive even. So it's kind of nice, and it's an honor for us to present it there."

And for Stephanie, who lives in Mount Airy and studies ballet at the Rock School for Dance Education, it was the first time performing Marie, the largest children's part in Nutcracker. It was more than an honor.

"I screamed and jumped on the bed" after learning that she'd won the part, she says. "And then I went to tell my cats," Lucas and Lily.

The holiday extravaganza features about 40 adults and 40 children, represented by two casts of kids. Stephanie dances the A cast, with Peter, a student at Metropolitan Ballet Academy in Jenkintown, as her prince. Her best friend, Maria Santangelo, 12, of Abington, dances the B cast, opposite Thomas Harrison, 12, of New Hope. Lucas Tischler, 11, of Elkins Park, plays Marie's annoying younger brother, Fritz, in both casts.

"My brother could be a great Fritz," Stephanie says of her real younger sibling, 8-year-old Scott, during practice. "I'd probably throw him in the orchestra pit, though."

But Stephanie is all business on stage, well rehearsed, and with dance in her genes. Her uncle, Robert Garland, is resident choreographer for Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Every step of Balanchine's choreography is set and carefully protected by the Balanchine Trust.

"There are not many companies that do Balanchine's Nutcracker that have the fully licensed and approved version," says Meg Booth, director of dance programming for the Kennedy Center. It is one of the reasons the Kennedy Center wanted Pennsylvania Ballet. "It is definitely a feather in their cap."

The Kennedy Center has a stellar ballet lineup for 2009-10: New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, Mariinksy (formerly Kirov), Bolshoi.

"We're in good company," Kaiser said, still smiling even though it was four days before opening night and he had just lost principal dancer Riolama Lorenzo to a calf injury and had to scramble to replace her.

The Kennnedy Center's resident company, the Suzanne Farrell Ballet, does not dance a Nutcracker. So the center has presented various versions over the years, often from American Ballet Theatre or Joffrey.

Booth says a perfect combination contributed to the Pennsylvania Ballet's invitation: an appearance at a festival in Washington last year, its Balanchine choreography, and its new sets and costumes, completely revamped in 2007.

While it's not a boon to the bottom line for the company - all money from ticket sales belongs to the Kennedy Center - it's all good nonetheless, says Michael Scolamiero, Pennsylvania Ballet's executive director.

"Opportunities to perform in national venues where you have no risk are rare," he says.

"They pay us a fee and they assume the cost of providing the Kennedy Center Orchestra, all the costs of the venue, marketing and publicity, box office. Our responsibility is to bring the entire production there." That includes music director and conductor Beatrice Jona Affron, and a cast of Washington-based children, joining the five principal children from Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia-based children's cast takes over when Nutcracker opens at the Academy of Music on Dec. 12.

The lavish holiday production is ballet gold. Most companies depend on it to pay the bills, and the Philadelphia performances do that for Pennsylvania Ballet.

"On a $10 million budget in rough numbers, the goal is just under 25 percent" of the annual income coming from Nutcracker, Scolamiero says. The company expects to net approximately $2.4 million from holiday performances. After expenses - the dancers' salaries, the cost of the theater, the orchestra, marketing - they usually clear between $750,000 and $900,000.

Despite the economy, this year's ticket sales in Philadelphia are running similar to previous years. Scolamiero says a good season will have the theater around 70 percent full. This year, the number of performances has been trimmed from 26 to 24, which is likely to help in meeting that goal. The Kennedy Center week fills the gap, providing the dancers with extra work.

And the audience of more than 2,000 at the Washington opening of the holiday ritual was in the spirit, oohing as the curtain rose on the Land of Sweets sets in the second act, laughing at the children's antics in the party scene, and applauding loudly for Jermel Johnson's double jumps through the hoops of his candy-cane variation.

A day later, Stephanie was pleased with her performance - except for the part where she whacked her head during the battle scene between the soldiers and mice.

And when the curtain went down, "I was mostly tired and hungry, because all I had before the performance was a turkey sandwich and three Jolly Ranchers. So we ordered pizza."

 


If You Go

Pennsylvania Ballet dances "George Balanchine's The Nutcracker Dec. 12-31 at the Academy of Music. $24-$129, 20 percent off if purchased on Cyber Monday, Nov. 30, 215-893-1999 or www.paballet.org


Contact writer Ellen Dunkel at edunkel@philly.com