Small dancers with medium-size ballet shoes to fill


By Ellen Dunkel, Inquirer Staff Writer

At 10, Jane Cohen of Moorestown is already a veteran of Pennsylvania Ballet's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. In the last two seasons she's been the bunny, an angel, and a grandchild.
This year's goal was to be a girl in the party scene and a Polichinelle - one of the children who emerge from Mother Ginger's immense skirt.
Instead, she was stunned to find herself cast as Marie, the female child lead.
Jane had dreamed one day of landing the coveted role, but "I thought maybe two years from now."
Nor was she the only one so happily surprised.
"I was hoping I'd get Fritz," the part of Marie's little brother, said Aidan Duffy, 9, of Philadelphia. "I screamed when I was Fritz!"

Then he was doubly shocked to learn that he also had been cast as the Prince, the male child lead, in alternating performances.
For the first time in more than 20 years, Pennsylvania Ballet opted against auditioning children from across the region for its Nutcracker; instead, the field was narrowed to students at its own School of Pennsylvania Ballet, which reopened in 2012 after a 22-year hiatus - a feat they hadn't expected to swing after just one year. But, said Arantxa Ochoa, who retired as a company principal in 2012 to become lead teacher at the school, "The kids are ready."
Ochoa taught the children bits of choreography before parts were assigned. To make things work size-wise, the three girls and two boys chosen to dance Marie and the Prince are new to the roles, and younger than those usually selected.
Along with Jane, Abbie Rorke, 11, of Philadelphia, and Grace Arrison, 10, of Malvern, will dance Marie. Aidan and Josh Selvin, 11, of Bala Cynwyd, will alternate in the roles of the Prince and Fritz. Tino Karakousis, 7, of Philadelphia, will also dance Fritz.
In all, 93 of the school's 145 students have been cast in the ballet, including some advanced students who are filling corps de ballet parts previously given to freelance dancers.
Of the children not cast, most are too tall. A third Prince was chosen, a boy who danced the role last year, but when he tried on the costume he found he had outgrown it. Another potential Prince, Jonathan Block, instead is performing in the Walnut Street Theatre's current production of Elf.
For months, Nutcracker was all the talk around the barre at the ballet's school.
"A lot of people told me I'd be Marie, but I didn't believe them," Abbie said. She was even more skeptical when summer passed with no word from the company - children dancing Marie and the Prince traditionally get early notice so they have more time to prepare.
"They didn't tell us anything," Grace agreed, though it was worth the wait: "I cried when I was Marie."
But casting only children from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet changed the game, Ochoa said. In the past, they worked with children from all over the region and thus around a variety of schedules. Weekends were the only time kids could rehearse.
Now, she said, "During the week we can rehearse. We finish class and then we have rehearsal."
Still, it isn't easy. Some days the students attend their academic schools, then have up to 21/2 hours of ballet class, followed by another two hours of rehearsal before they can go home.
It's enough to make a child act like a child.
"He gives you a little kiss," Ochoa instructed at a recent rehearsal for the five leads. Jane giggled as Aidan bent over to plant one on her outstretched hand.
"You cannot laugh," Ochoa gently scolded. "Are you going to laugh in the show?"
Josh - whose great-grandmother, Seraphina Taylor Cohen, danced with the Atlanta Ballet - observed helpfully that "the Prince and Marie used to be older, so the Prince and Marie used to be taller and more mature."
True, says Ochoa, but she feels that's part of her pint-size cast's charm.
"They have an innocence that goes with Marie," she said "They are little girls, they don't have to pretend. You're just looking at the story. It's not about having the perfect technique. It's about being a young girl, Christmas Eve, being excited. They are innocent and pure."
The young dancers have bars to clear. "I think the Prince and Fritz is hard," Aidan said of his combo casting. "We're told to be very big" for the Prince, Josh added, "and then very evil" - or at least bratty - for Fritz.
Still, they are up for the challenge. "It's great for them," Ochoa said. "They show a completely different side. They have to completely change."
"I like the battle [between the mice and soldiers], because there's a lot of acting," Abbie said. "And when the bed spins, it's going to be awesome."
"I like the battle, and the beginning of Act 2, because that's where the crowd claps the most," Josh said. "And we get to fly away at the end!" Aidan added.
Pennsylvania Ballet is planning future seasons with their students in mind. Meanwhile, last spring, Abbie and Grace danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Annenberg Center, and in Pennsylvania Ballet's Midsummer Night's Dream. The company will repeat Midsummer in June at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and plans to bring its children's cast along.
But for now, the roles of Marie and the Prince are the pinnacle of children's ballet stardom, in a Nutcracker filled with magical moments.
"It's like their dream," Ochoa said.
Is it also the first step toward their destiny? Abbie and Aidan said they weren't sure they wanted to dance professionally, while Josh said he might like to follow in his great-grandmother's steps.
"I want to be a dancer when I grow up," said Grace, whose mother studied with Pacific Northwest Ballet. "It's been my dream since I was 3."
Jane has it all planned out. "When I'm 16, I want to go to Paris and I want to be in Paris Opera Ballet for two years. And then I want to be an astrophysicist."

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Saturday through Dec. 29 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $35-$135. Information: 215-893-1999

Eye On The Arts: 23-Year-Old Ballerina To Dance Dream Roll In The Nutcracker

Videos, Nutcracker, Interviews, 12-13

CBS 3, December 2012
CBS 3’s Pat Ciarrocchi speaks with Company Member Lillian Di Piazza, who will premiere as the Sugarplum Fairy in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™ this season.

'Nutcracker' at 25, still jumping for joy

Nutcracker, 12-13, Reviews

Inquirer, December 12, 2012
When Pennsylvania Ballet opened its 25th season of performing George Balanchine's full-lengthNutcracker Saturday at the Academy of Music, there undoubtedly were people in the audience who were seeing it for the 25th year in a row.
So what's to return for after all this time? Like a favorite holiday movie, repeat viewings only add to the comfort and joy. Even when you know what's coming, you're likely to get chills when it begins to snow onstage. And unlike, say, White Christmas orLove Actually, you'll see different things each time as the casting changes.
Saturday night's performance featured Julie Diana as Sugarplum and Ian Hussey - a replacement for Zachary Hench - as her Cavalier. Diana is a lovely, delicate dancer (though her arms shook uncertainly in the pas de deux), and Hussey, who rose quickly through the ranks and was promoted to principal dancer this fall, was a handsome, confident partner.
Caralin Curcio was a slithery, sultry Coffee, while Jermel Johnson awed with his signature explosive jumps in Tea. Amy Aldridge often performs Dewdrop, and she was perfect for the role, flitting in, out, and among the Flowers.
In the children's roles, Mary Lee Deddens danced and acted nicely as the multilayered Marie, with Juan Rafael Castellanos as her exasperating brother, Fritz. Christian Lavallie had the combined role of Drosselmeier's nephew and the Nutcracker Prince. He was valiant battling the Mouse King and recapping it later in pantomime to Sugarplum.
If you attend year after year, you'll spot rising stars in the program, as young dancers grow into bigger roles. Stephanie Bandura, who is Marie on the Comcast wall, dances the role of a mouse, and Lucas Tischler, an especially impish Fritz a few years ago, now is the Prince in some performances. Many of the Flowers and Snowflakes are company apprentices, Pennsylvania Ballet II dancers, or advanced students at the newly reopened School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
A repeat viewing is also a fine time to take in the low-tech effects, which astonish nonetheless. A few were wonky on opening night, breaking the spell a little: The Nutcracker transferred into the Prince costume a little too slowly. Mother Ginger's immense skirt revealed all the Polichinelles still inside each time one stepped out. And the Angels' costumes are a bit too short, allowing the audience to see their tiny steps rather than letting them appear to float across the stage.
But the magic is still there when the tree - and Marie's whole world - grows before our eyes, when the toy soldiers come to life, when the Philadelphia Boys Choir sings as snow wafts onto the stage when Sugarplum glides across the floor on one pointe, and when Marie and the Prince sail off in a flying walnut boat - even if we can see the wires holding them up. Also charming is the single bunny among the soldiers, perhaps replacing a long-lost piece.
All these small enchantments, supported by Tchaikovsky's gorgeous score, help make Nutcracker one of the rare ballets to appear on many must-see lists year after year. It's easy to see why.
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Surviving "Nutcracker"

Features, Nutcracker, 12-13

Pointe Magazine, December 2012
Dancers have a love-hate relationship withNutcracker. For many, it was the first ballet they saw; for even more, it was the first they ever performed. But, despite the nostalgia, December’s relentless marathon of shows takes a toll. If Nutcracker music is starting to make you a little loopy, you’re not alone!  
Abigail Mentzer
Soloist at Pennsylvania Ballet
First roles: Angel and Soldier in The Nutcracker movie with Macaulay Culkin
Favorite role: Lead Marzipan and Sugar Plum
Performances per season: About 30
All-time favorite Sugar Plum: Darci Kistler
How do you stay sane during Nutcrackerseason? I sew. It takes my mind off the day. And my gym is across the street from our theater, so in between shows—some Saturdays we have three in a day—I’ll go to the hot tub. 
How do you keep up your stamina? I swim laps about three times a week. It loosens up my joints. I always feel much more open and taller afterwards. 
What goes through your mind when you hear Nutcracker music in a store? Honestly? Anxiety. 
Favorite holiday traditions? Icing my feet! And I love to escape to New York City, because that’s where I grew up. 
Biggest Nutcracker nightmare? In my first year doing Sugar Plum, my shoe came off near the end of my variation! I had to do the whole greeting scene with it practically off my foot. I thought nothing could go wrong after that—but the next day, my partner was horribly sick, and in the pas when we did the no-handed fish, he didn’t feel me start to slide down. My belly was basically lying on the floor!
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Two Dates Announced for Tea with the Sugarplum Fairy

Nutcracker, 12-13, Events

Join the Sugarplum Fairy in the ballroom at the Doubletree Hotel, across the street from the Academy of Music! Enjoy a delectable buffet of sandwiches, desserts, tea and hot cocoa, along with the opportunity to take photos with the Sugarplum Fairy, and a magical matinee performance of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker™.

December 9 at 2:30
Click for more info >>

December 22 at 12pm
Click for more info >>



Photo Of The Day: Pennsylvania Ballet Dancers at The Comcast Center

Features, 11-12, Nutcracker

Allison Stadd
December 7, 2011
The Comcast Center Holiday Spectacular, a Philadelphia holiday favorite, includes new and enchanting scenes from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker performed by the renowned Pennsylvania Ballet, filmed this past October.
The dancers themselves made a surprise appearance at the Comcast Center this afternoon, providing viewers twice the holiday fun. Check out the video, below, of the impromptu performance, as well as another photo.
See the photos and watch the video at

Tis The Season

Nutcracker, Features, 11-12

by Jillian Mele
NBC Philadelphia
December 17, 2011
Jillian Mele gets an exclusive look behind the scenes at the Pennsylvania Ballet. 
Watch the video at

A Prince of a Part

Features, 11-12, Nutcracker

by Michael Elkin
Jewish Exponent
December 14, 2011
At Lucas Tischler's Bar Mitzvah this February at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, will they be doing the Macarena or a pas de deux?
Why not both: The proudly Jewish Elkins Park youngster is high on Haftorah and ballet leaps these days and is used to being feted himself.
Now he'd like to fete others. The community mitzvah he plans to pursue as part of his rite of passage: a dance-a-thon to benefit Jewish Family and Children's Service of Greater Philadelphia; it's also where his mother is supervisor of volunteer services.
It is, as he reasons, "a step up" from his part last year in the suite as Fritz, a less regal role.But before the Bar Mitzvah, there's raising the barre. And that's what the 13-year-old is doing now, playing the Prince in the current Pennsylvania Ballet Company production of "The Nutcracker" at the Academy of Music.
He owns the court, saving little Clara from the armed toy soldiers in battle and plumping himself and her on a throne in this most sugarplum of a role.
But the Cedarbrook Middle School student has worked hard for it: "I've been studying professional dance for six years." And he owes quite a bit, he says, to the talented teachers at the Metropolitan Ballet Academy here.
A smart kid, he somewhat smarts when stereotypes of ballet dancers are voiced.
"Everybody plays sports at school," says the baseball and hockey enthusiast and accomplished player, too, "but ballet is very tough -- especially when you're taught by Russians," which he was during a summer session at the rigorous and respected Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Connecticut.
No tough love at home, just filial loving support coming from both parents Lisa and John, a computer programmer, as well as older sibs Emma and Golde.
The next step? He'll probably be handling princely roles for the next few years.
But one day, he says, "I'd like to act."
He acts his age, unspoiled, even while traveling in the jete stream of professionals. It is all so wonderful being on stage, where he says he knows he belongs.
A fan of the film Billy Elliot and its en point perusal of children in ballet, he totally agrees with the number from A Chorus Line in which dancers concede that "Everything Is Beautiful at the Ballet."
"It certainly is," he says with a sigh. "It's magical."
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PA Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

Features, 11-12, Nutcracker

By Pat Ciarrocchi
CBS Philly
December 14, 2011

It’s the holiday season, and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is at the Academy of Music now through New Year’s Eve.

With its score by Tchaikovsky and the performance by the elite dancers of the Pennsylvania Ballet, The Nutcracker is captivating.

And for Lauren Fadeley and Francis Veyette, the experience has spun a web of love.

“It’s very, very rare that you get to do what you love with the person you love,” says Veyette.

On October 29th, Veyette married Fadeley during the two week period when the company wasn’t performing.

“They emailed us the schedule,” says Fadeley, “and it said, ‘Mr. and Mrs. Veyette for Sugar Plum and Cavalier.’”

Principal roles that tell a romantic story are the stuff of great ballet. But to dance the roles together–for the first time–is rare.

“She’s an amazing ballerina,” Veyette gushes about his new wife.

“This is the best wedding present we ever could have gotten.”

The Nutcracker turns on the story of a child’s fantasy. The roles of Marie and the young Prince were cast with Nutcracker veterans from the first act’s party scene.

Twelve-year-old Mary Lee Deddens is dancing as Marie for the first time, and she’s thrilled.

“We’re told to practice at home. My sister is in the party scene also, so she sings the music and we both practice.”

Ballet Master Jeffrey Gribler has worked with The Nutcracker‘s children for twenty years.

“They’re mature and wise beyond their years, so they bring a lot to the ballet,” he says.

That includes 12-year-old Christian Lavallie, who is the Young Prince for the first time.

“I was a Party Boy, and it’s just like a huge upgrade from that. So, it’s a lot of fun.“


Read and watch the video at


Polished and pretty, a ‘Nutcracker’ to celebrate

Reviews, 11-12, Nutcracker

By Ellen Dunkel
The Inquirer
December 12, 2011
Fresh off a seven-performance tour of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker to Ottawa, Pennsylvania Ballet opened at home Saturday night with a polished performance at the Academy of Music.
The principal children - Mary Lee Deddens as Marie, Juan Rafael Castellanos as her brother Fritz, and Christian Lavallie as the Prince - are adorable and all danced well, but they also drew the audience in with a believable sense of wonder.
Pennsylvania Ballet is a small company, so most dancers perform more than one role, which only adds to the transformative feel of the story. Lauren Carfolite and Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan are Maids serving drinks in Act 1 and turn into Tea in Act 2. Most of the Snowflakes blossom into Flowers. Holly Lynn Fusco was the Harlequin doll in Act 1, a Snowflake at the beginning of Act 2, and then the lead Marzipan Shepherdess later in the show, performing all flawlessly.
Amy Aldridge is an ideal Sugar Plum, smiling and beautiful. She upped the role on Saturday, with great reactions as the Prince mimed his battle with the Mouse King. She also added extra turns to her pirouettes, twice doing four rotations. Only her partnering with Zachary Hench as her Cavalier now and then seemed forced.
Barette Vance Widell danced Dewdrop, a gorgeous fairy who jetés and flits on and off stage among the flowers. Her solo featured a set of fouettés that she finished with a fast double turn.
Other notables include Brooke Moore as the female lead in Hot Chocolate, who performs in a group of 10 dancers but is magnetic in the role. Alexander Peters, an apprentice, was a sharp, precise Soldier doll, something the part demands but doesn't always get.
Riolama Lorenzo has been off the stage for several months, and it was wonderful to see her back as the sultry Coffee, performing with a bare midriff and sixpack abs that made it hard to believe she had a baby girl in July. There won't be many more opportunities to see her, though; she is retiring from the company in February.
Jermel Johnson excels in roles that require high jumps and extreme flexibility, and he brought both to Tea, with Carfolite and Ryan. This is the one divertissement that, while entertaining, also seems extremely dated, with non-Asian dancers representing Chinese people and performing stereotypical movements. Yet somehow, with an African-American man and two white women in the roles, the politically incorrect aspect was played down.
One section that needs work is the Angel dance. The children in beautiful costumes are a joy to watch, but they do not float as they do in New York City Ballet, which dances the same Balanchine choreography. Either the children's steps need to be smaller and faster or the dresses longer, to hide their feet.
With low-tech magic and a top-notch cast, Nutcracker is a holiday favorite for good reason. Catch it if you can. If you can't, stop by the Comcast Center, where Pennsylvania Ballet is part of the new holiday show on the wall.
Through Dec. 31 at the Academy of Music. $20-$140. 215-893-1999 or

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