Young ‘Nutcracker’ dancers savor first time on big stage

SEATTLE — In a dressing room above McCaw Hall’s big stage, Abigail Opper transformed from an adolescent girl into a fighting soldier.

Her cylindrical black hat made the Lynnwood girl appear taller than she is. The bright pink circles on each cheek softened the military look.

The nascent ballerina’s battlefield included cannons, rodents and the grisly stuff of Maurice Sendak’s imagination.

For about two minutes, Abigail, 11, joined scores of other Pacific Northwest Ballet School students in one of many feverishly delightful scenes in Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker.”

“It’s a lot of fun doing ‘Nutcracker’ with all my friends,” Abigail said. “I like fighting the mices.”

Since 1983, this whimsical, fantastical and delightful rendition of “Nutcracker” has inspired young people in the audience and on the stage.

More than 200 children have roles in PNB’s “Nutcracker,” spokesman Gary Tucker said. Six Snohomish County children, including Abigail, earned roles this year. Also in the performance are Audrey and Camille Marrs of Snohomish; Madison Abeo of Monroe; Sevon Misako of Marysville and Lily Kotovic of Lynnwood.

Like Abigail, they must audition for a coveted slot in September, then rehearse for weeks to learn the careful steps, pirouettes, twirls and formations demanded during the two-hour ballet.

“I’m mostly marching and pointing my gun,” Abigail said.

Each “Nutcracker” audience, including the packed house for Saturday’s matinee performance, takes in what has become perhaps the best-loved classical ballet in the American repertoire.

PNB’s famous “Nutcracker” first was conceived 30 years ago by Kent Stowell, the former artistic director, and Sendak, the children’s illustrator and author of “Where the Wild Things Are.”

Because the story recounts a 19th century Christmas party, the scenery and costumes are timeless, if a bit fragile.

A squadron of horse costumes was rebuilt this year, but a young boy’s waistcoat lost a hem during the matinee. A strip of satin draped precariously during his dancing. (A costume manager waited backstage to attend such mishaps, part of the price of a decades-old wardrobe and fitting nearly 200 outfits for three casts.)

Such details are lost on the audience. Children look at the dancers, including a fez-wearing Chinese tiger, and in that moment may dedicate their ambitions to a life of stretching, toe pointing and leaping to new-found heights.

“‘That’s what I want to do,’” many kids say, Tucker said. “It’s a great introduction for everybody.”

“Nutcracker” inspired Denise Opper, Abigail’s mom, to become a dancer.

“I loved being on stage. It’s an experience that you just don’t forget,” Denise Opper said.

Abigail, the youngest of three siblings and the only dancer, started when she was 3.

Now, she spends more than 10 hours each week studying at PNB’s school. At home she stretches and practices along a hallway.

“I really want to be a principal dancer here,” Abigail said.

Everett-native Andrew Bartee, 21, now a member of PNB’s professional company, got his start in “Nutcracker” as a fighting mouse at 15.

“It was my first big performance experience,” he said.

He now has several roles in “Nutcracker.” On Saturday, he was a Moor in Act II, and a Father in the opening scene.

“I love dancing with the kids,” Bartee said.

Abigail, who also has been cast for a dancing part in PNB’s upcoming “Don Quixote,” said “just, like, everything,” about “Nutcracker” helps her get into a holiday mood.

There’s a “big Christmas tree, everyone dresses up for parties and stuff,” Abigail said.

In the “Nutcracker” story, Clara, the main character, awakes at the end to discover the battling mice and handsome prince was all a dream.

For Abigail, it may be the other way around. Her dream is coming true.

“I can’t wait to be a ballerina,” she said.

And as the curtain falls at McCaw Hall, it seems Abigail already is.

Jackson Holtz: 425-339-3447; jholtz@heraldnet.com.

See The Nutcracker

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” continues at 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 23, plus 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, Dec. 14 through 22, 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. Dec. 24, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 26 and Dec. 27, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St. Tickets are $26 and up; 206-441-2424; www.pnb.org.

Several other productions of the “Nutcracker” are being performed around Snohomish County. See The Herald’s A&E section for more details.

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