There are a lot of prized roles in the "The Nutcracker," whether it's Tchaikovsky's beloved 1892 ballet version or more recent stage adaptations of E.T.A. Hoffmann's 1816 fairy tale that crowd many theaters during the holiday season.
There's the mysterious toy inventor Drosselmeyer, the Sugar Plum Fairy prima ballerina who rules over a land of sweets and, of course, the title character, who is actually a prince under a magic curse cast by the wicked "Mouse King" (or a multiheaded "Rat King" if you want to be more sinister and scary by hearkening back to Hoffmann's original).
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But the most important role in "The Nutcracker" is the little girl who dreams it all up. This girl goes by many names. Most often she's known in the ballet as "Clara," though "Marie" is also popular. She even goes by the Slavic endearment "Masha" in the case of Moscow Ballet's tour of "The Great Russian Nutcracker."
"The story is told through Clara's eyes," said Schaumburg Dance Ensemble director Michele Holzman. "So if she's not there, the story can't progress."
Just as there are many names for Clara, there are also lots of interpretive ways of depicting her onstage. Some companies choose to cast children in the role to be more authentic, while others opt to have an adult play Clara.
For dance companies that cast children, Clara is one of the most coveted roles out there. Just in terms of wardrobe alone, Clara goes from wearing a lovely 19th-century party dress to often being crowned a princess by Act II.
"It's every little girl's dream and everybody wants to be Clara," said Holzman, who stresses that awarding the role of Clara in their double-cast production doesn't necessarily predict who will or won't grow up to be a professional dancer.
"It doesn't mean that you're not a good dancer," advises Holzman for kids who never get cast as Clara. "It does mean that at that time of your life, you weren't either the right size or you didn't have the right technique or the right acting abilities. It's really tricky to be just right."
Schaumburg Dance Ensemble has two casts for its production of "The Nutcracker," with the other Clara dancer always on standby backstage.
Holzman recalled the one time in Schaumburg Dance Ensemble's 19-year history of producing "The Nutcracker" that they had to do a mid-performance Clara switch out.
"We thought it might have been nerves and not really being ill. But as the Act I party scene progressed I could see she wasn't doing well," said Holzman of the one-time sickly Clara. "(The two girls) didn't look at all alike, but we didn't have a choice because the poor thing really was ill."
It's typically in the more professional dance companies where Clara is played by an adult dancer, like in the Joffrey Ballet's 26-year-old production choreographed by late company co-founder Robert Joffrey.
"(Joffrey) was really quite clear about having Clara be able to dance en pointe (on her toes)," said Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater. "And it was also being able to believably show a child on the verge of adolescence and that the dancer would be able to carry the story ... It's a demanding role."
There are practical reasons for casting adults to play children, too. Since the Joffrey tours its "Nutcracker" to other cities (before Chicago, they're playing the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.), it makes sense to cast the role from within the company. Or in stage adaptations like the Marriott Theatre's musical version or The House Theatre of Chicago's updated 1960s revisionist take on the tale, having a grown-up actress playing Clara allows for the character to explore more complex emotions like grief.
In some cases, Clara herself undergoes a transformation. Wheater previously danced in the late Rudolph Nureyev's version for London's Royal Ballet where Clara became the Sugar Plum Fairy. Or in the case of Salt Creek Ballet's "Nutcracker," after Clara helps to break the Mouse King's curse, a different dancer assumes the role to become "Princess Clara."
Jessica Metelski, a 16-year-old from Lisle, is one of two dancers playing Princess Clara in Salt Creek Ballet's "Nutcracker" this season (the other is Stefanee Montesantos). Metelski has worked her way up by playing other "Nutcracker" roles, starting in 2008 when she was one of Mother Ginger's little "Bon Bons."
"You look up to the dancers who were Clara before," Metelski said. "So when you get the part you want to try to fill the shoes of the people who have gone before you."
And now that Metelski will have her chance to play Clara, the next role to set her sights on is the Sugar Plum Fairy -- a plum role typically only performed by dancers in professional ballet companies.
"That would be amazing," Metelski said. "You never know what's going to happen, but yeah, that's definitely a dream of mine."
Where to see 'The Nutcracker'
• The Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" takes pride of place at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Parkway, Chicago. Performances run Thursday, Dec. 6, through Saturday, Dec. 28. 7 p.m. performance dates are Dec. 6, 12-13, 19-20; 2 and 7 p.m. performance dates are Dec. 14-15, 21-23 and 26; 2 p.m. matinees are Dec. 8, 24, 27-28. Tickets run $31-$132. (800) 982-2787 or joffrey.org.
• Ballet Chicago's "The Nutcracker" is at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturdays, Dec. 14 and 21, 2:30 p.m. Sundays, Dec. 15 and 22, and 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20, at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. Tickets cost $24-$30; $16-$24 seniors and $14 kids. (773) 935-6875 or balletchicago.org.
• Salt Creek Ballet's "The Nutcracker" tours three different locations this season. First up is a run at 1 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 30-Dec. 1, at Hinsdale Central Auditorium, 55th and Grant streets, Hinsdale. Tickets cost $15-$37; $26 for seniors and children. (630) 769-1199. There are two shows at 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Governors State University, 1 University Parkway, off I-57 at Sauk Trail, University Park. Tickets cost $20-$40; $20 children. (708) 235-2222. The run concludes at 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie. Tickets cost $20-$40. (847) 673-6300 or saltcreekballet.org.
• Von Heidecke Chicago Festival Ballet Company's "The Nutcracker" is performed at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, at the Rialto Square Theatre, 15 E. Van Buren St., Joliet. Tickets range from $30-$38. (815) 726-6600 or chicagofestivalballet.com.
• Schaumburg Dance Ensemble's "The Nutcracker" plays over two weekends between Friday, Dec. 6, and Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Prairie Center for the Arts, 201 Schaumburg Court, Schaumburg. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets cost $26; $18 for students and seniors. (847) 895-3600 or prairiecenter.org.
• The Barrington Youth Dance Ensemble's "The Nutcracker" is at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 6; 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Barrington High School, 616 W. Main St., Barrington. Tickets range from $15-$28. (847) 382-6333 or byde.org.
• Dancenter North celebrates its 25th anniversary production of "The Magic of the Nutcracker" in two locations. First up are two performances at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 7-8, at Libertyville High School, 708 W. Park Ave., Libertyville. Tickets run $15-$33. (847) 367-7970 or themagicofthenutcracker.com. Two subsequent matinees are 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 14-15, at the Genesee Theatre, 203 N. Genesee St., Waukegan. Tickets cost $15-$36. (312) 559-1212 or geneseetheatre.com.
• The North Shore School of Dance's 25th annual "The Nutcracker" is at 1 and 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at Lake Forest High School, 1285 N. McKinley Road, Lake Forest. Tickets cost $22; $15 for kids and seniors. (847) 432-2060 or northshoredance.com.
• Dance West Ballet's "The Nutcracker" is at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 13; 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14; and 1 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, at North Central College's Pfeiffer Hall, 310 E. Benton Ave., Naperville. $30; $23 children and seniors. (630) 637-7469 or dancewestballet.com.
• Ruth Page Civic Ballet's "The Nutcracker" features Ruth Page's full-length staging at two locations: Northeastern Illinois University, 5500 N. St. Louis Ave., Chicago. Performances are 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8. Tickets cost $25; $18 students and seniors. (773) 442-4636 or ruthpage.org. Also at College of Lake County's Lumber Center for the Performing Arts, 19351 W. Washington St., Grayslake. Performances are at 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22. (847) 543-2300 or clcillinois.edu/tickets.
• Ballet Legere's "The Nutcracker Ballet" plays at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, at Dominican University's Lund Auditorium, 7900 W. Division St., River Forest. Tickets cost $25-$27; $20-$22 for seniors and children. (708) 488-5000 or balletlegere.org.
• Moscow Ballet's "The Great Russian Nutcracker" is at 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 8, at the Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont. Tickets cost $26-$120. (800) 745-3000 or rosemonttheatre.com.
• The Berkshire Ballet Theatre's "The Nutcracker" plays at 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake. Tickets cost $20-$26. (815) 356-9212 or rauecenter.org.
• Illinois Youth Dance Theatre's 14th production of "The Nutcracker" plays at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 20; 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 21; and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 22, at Lake Zurich High School Performing Arts Center, 300 Church St., Lake Zurich. Tickets cost $15-$25. (847) 438-4500 or iydt.org.
• State Street Dance Studio's 10th anniversary production of "The Nutcracker" plays at 4 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, at the Batavia Fine Arts Centre, 1201 Main St., Batavia. Tickets cost $25-$40; $20-$30 children. (630) 937-8930 or statestreetdancestudio.com.
• The Irina Makkai Classical Ballet and Dance School performs "The Nutcracker" at 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 7-8, at Elm Place Middle School, 2031 Sheridan Road, Highland Park. Tickets cost $20. (847) 433-1449 or balletmakkai.com.
• The Hyde Park School of Dance performs "The Nutcracker" at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 14, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 15, at the University of Chicago's Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St., Chicago. Tickets cost $20 and $10 for students and seniors. (773) 493-8498 or hydeparkdance.org.
• The Marriott Theatre for Young Audiences revives Marc Robin's family-friendly musical theater adaptation of "The Nutcracker" featuring music by Tchaikovsky at 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. Performances continue through Saturday, Dec. 28. Performance times vary, but mostly at 10 a.m. or 12:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. $15. (847) 634-0200 or marriotttheatre.com.
• The House Theatre of Chicago revives its updated stage version of "The Nutcracker" by playwrights Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich and composer Kevin O'Donnell now through Sunday, Dec. 29, at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday (no shows Nov. 28 and no evening shows Nov. 24 or Dec. 8). Extra shows at 3 p.m. Nov. 29 and Saturdays Nov. 30, Dec. 14, 21 and 28 and at 7 p.m. Dec. 23. Tickets cost $25-$45. (773) 769-3832 or thehousetheatre.com.
• The Comedy Shrine's family-friendly Fractured Fairy Tales series takes aim at "The Nutcracker" at 2 p.m. Saturdays now through Dec. 28 at 4034 Fox Valley Center Drive, Aurora. Tickets cost $10 and $5 for kids. (630) 585-0300 or comedyshrine.com.
• "The Dance-Along Nutcracker" features live music from the Lakeside Pride Band and allows you to directly participate at the Chicago Cultural Center's Preston Bradley Hall, 78 E. Washington St., Chicago. Show times are noon and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, with dance lessons at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Free. (312) 744-6630.
• "Duke It Out" serves up classical and jazz versions of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker Suite" along with dancers from Foster Dance Company and musicians from Axiom Brass and Quintet Attacca at 10 and 11:45 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. There is also a 9 a.m. musical open house for families. Tickets cost $5. (847) 905-1500, ext. 108, or musicinst.org.