Every sugar-cereal-chomping kid recognizes the first flute flutter in The Nutcracker's "Dance of the Reed Pipes." The airy melody has made its way into innumerable cartoons and movies, invoking images of sugar plum fairies, marzipan and snow-kissed queens. But for some tykes, Tchaikovsky's famous ballet is more of a lifestyle. Siblings 10-year-old Sebastian and 11-year-old Brenna Houk have been hoping to play the leading roles of fictional brother and sister, Fritz and Clara Stahlbaum, since they started dancing with the Ballet Idaho Youth Ensemble. This year, the two have been practicing nonstop since September.
"It's been super busy. We have to do it pretty much all day Saturday," said Brenna.
Because of the physical rigors of the performance, Ballet Idaho has two Nutcracker casts--one for Friday night and Saturday matinee and one for Saturday night and Sunday matinee.
"It's a very demanding show in terms of dance ... and something that demanding, they can't do four shows in a row because there's a physical issue of muscle fatigue," said Julie Numbers Smith, Ballet Idaho executive director. "We double cast it so we can have different kinds of interpretations of each role ... You'll get four different shows, really."
Though Sebastian will play the rambunctious Fritz in all four performances, Brenna won't join him until the final two performances. Eleven-year-old Cristina Zimmerman will take on the role of Clara in the first two shows. Zimmerman, who has been dancing since age 2 and played one of the party children in last year's Nutcracker production, has wanted to fill Clara's slippers since she was "super little."
"It's fun, you get to meet a lot of the company members, and they're all nice," said Zimmerman.
Those who caught last year's Nutcracker, which featured all new scenery and costumes by A. Christina Giannini and new choreography by artistic director Peter Anastos, won't find too many differences in this year's performance. Besides company members being recast in various roles, the most interesting changes in this year's show involve the roles of Fritz and Clara.
"Usually Clara's played by a petite, but adult ballerina," explained Smith. "So, to our knowledge--and Peter has a long history with the ballet industry--this is the only production that we know of that has Claras this young and a Clara and a Fritz that are real-life brother and sister."
Sebastian, who enjoys getting to fake squabble with his real sister on-stage, echoes Smith's excitement.
"It's pretty neat because no brother and sister in real life have played brother and sister in The Nutcracker," said Sebastian.
But Sebastian, Brenna and Cristina won't be the first to don their new, much smaller, costumes. Over Thanksgiving weekend, 11-year-old Kierra Egger and 12-year-old Tippy Dringman from Billings, Mont., got to break them in. Egger and Dringman were cast as Clara and Fritz in the Billings production of The Nutcracker, which featured Ballet Idaho's sets, costumes and professional company alongside the Billings Symphony Orchestra and 60 local child dancers.
"Now that we own the sets and costumes this year, we were able to tour our company and our sets and costumes to Billings, Mont., and we were sponsored by the Billings Symphony," said Smith. "We were able to share this, even in another community next door."
Anastos worked with the Billings School of Classical Ballet to make sure that the local dancers were familiar with his choreography. In both the Billings and the Boise productions, Anastos decided to cast Clara as a young girl instead of a professional adult dancer.
"Apparently a time-honored piece of controversy within the world of The Nutcracker is the age of Clara and Fritz," explained Jody Ballou, director of marketing and public relations at the Billings Symphony. "There's two camps, people who think when she falls asleep, she becomes older and she should be an older dancer with the nutcracker prince. Then, there are people who say it's a little girl dreaming and that she stays herself in the dream. It's a totally artistic interpretation there and Peter Anastos certainly has his own interpretation of The Nutcracker."
According to Smith, casting younger dancers in the roles of Clara and Fritz not only makes the characters more believable, but also makes the show more engaging and inspiring for younger audiences--a large number of Nutcracker attendees.
"I think it's extremely exciting in the sense that the children in the audience that will come see the show will truly identify with the kids their age in this fantasy, in this story line, in a way that I don't think they could otherwise," said Smith. "I think it enhances the story quite a bit."
As soon as the lights are shut off at the Morrison Center on Saturday night, the whimsical sets and costumes from Ballet Idaho's Nutcracker still have more miles to travel before they're packed up and put into storage for next year.
"After our Nutcracker is over, the sets and costumes will be shipped down to Nevada Ballet Theatre in Las Vegas [in which] Peter's choreography will be used," said Smith.
While those who are only fleetingly familiar with The Nutcracker might wonder why generations of families return to watch the same production year after year, for many it has become as much of a symbolic holiday tradition as unwrapping presents. And just like re-watching A Christmas Story for the hundredth time, re-watching The Nutcracker reveals subtle nuances with each passing year.
"I think if you come year to year, you will see different things that you hadn't seen before," said Smith. "I think it will connect with something special in your heart; it becomes your own symbol of the holidays."