North suburban dancers perform in 'The Nutcracker'

| Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, 8:52 p.m.

Diana Abougalieva, Melanie Brkovich, Katie Klodowski and Mia Manuppelli all agree: Dancing on the big stage of the Benedum Center in the “The Nutcracker” is something otherworldly.

“It was awesome, amazing,” said Mia, a sixth-grader at Mars Area Centennial School.

“I had a mask over my head. I could see the stage, but I couldn't see the crowd.”

That was last year, her first year in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production, when she played a mouse and a carousel rider.

She and the others are among 170 student performers who are dancing in the ballet classic until Dec. 30 in a production that Pittsburghers have made one of their holiday traditions. Two student casts rotate through 20 performances.

This year, Mia, 11, of Mars, is one of the girls in the party scene and gets to wear a blue and yellow gown. At age 11, she's eager to progress to higher levels of skill and dance more important roles in the ballet.

Diana, 10, and a fourth-grader at Highcliff Elementary School in Ross Township, has stepped up from her first-time performance as a toy soldier.

Last year, she was in the company of her father, Nurlan Abougaliev, a principal dancer with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, or PBT, and mother, Aygul Abougalieva. Since her mother's retirement, Diana still performs with her father.

In her second year, she played a toy soldier and a carousel rider. This season, her third time in “The Nutcracker,” she'll play one of the three white sheep.

“I like the costume except for the head,” said Diana, of Ross.

“It's really stuffy when you put it on.”

After four years of ballet lessons, she still finds herself to be excited and nervous when standing before the Benedum audience.

Melanie, a student at Carson Middle School in McCandless, is in her fifth year as a performer in “The Nutcracker.” She has been studying ballet since she was 3.

“I've always wanted to dance and always ballet,” she said.

After seeing a professional performance of the ballet for the first time, the sixth-grader said, she joined PBT's school.

“And I've never left.”

The 12-year-old from McCandless is dancing the roles of a boy in the party scene and a clown this year.

When dancing, she said, “I feel I can actually do something other than school that is individual and unique.”

Katie, 16, a student at Hampton High School, is the veteran performer. This is her 10th year in “The Nutcracker.” She began dancing at age 2.

After seeing anything about “The Nutcracker,” she used to asked her parents: “When is it going to be my turn?” Soon, thereafter, she joined PBT's ballet school at age 4.

She said she was pleased in the first year to have gotten good parts: a girl at the party and a toy soldier.

“My dad was nervous. He didn't know if I could do the part,” she said.

But her roles continued.

At age 12, she played McTavish and danced a solo. This season, she is the Blue Butterfly and a flower.

“I like being a flower better,” the Hampton resident said.

“Dancing en pointe in a mask for the butterfly is very hard. The wings are bigger than my body.”

The high school junior started with “The Nutcracker” at age 7. She is pleased that many of her friends have come to see her perform.

“They don't know what I do after school,” she said.

“Now, they see what I do.”

During “The Nutcracker” season, practices are held weekday evenings, usually from 6 to 8 p.m. Some girls add Saturdays to their practice schedules. All performers prepare in earnest.

“I love ballet. I look forward to it every day,” Mia said.

“I love talking to my friends about the steps. It's really fun.”

And during performances, she enjoys both the acting and the dancing.

“The party scene — my favorite — is really like being at a party. I react and act a lot.”

While Melanie would love to dance the lead role of Marie in “The Nutcracker,” her ballet dream role, Katie said she would be excited to do the title role in “Coppélia” because of its comedy and music.

All of the girls said they will continue to dance as long as possible.

But in this holiday season, they always are Pittsburgh bound, ready to delight yet another audience.

“Sometimes it's hard with school,” Katie said, “but I never did Christmas without (‘The Nutcracker'). It doesn't feel right.”

Dona S. Dreeland is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or

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