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Young North Hills-area dancers' dreams come true in 'Nutcracker'

| Monday, Dec. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Courtesy of Nicholas Coppula
Mackenzie Cherry, 9, of Franklin Park is a bumblebee and a soldier in the 2013 Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre production of 'The Nutcracker.'
Courtesy of Nicholas Coppula
Cassidy Nelson, 8, of Ross Township is a toy soldier in the 2013 Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre production of 'The Nutcracker.'
Courtesy of Nicholas Coppula
Mia Manuppelli, 12, of Adams Township is a party boy in the 2013 Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre production of 'The Nutcracker.'
Courtesy of Madia Photography
Katie Klodowski, 17, of Hampton is a flower and a butterfly in the 2013 Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre production of 'The Nutcracker.' She is not wearing a costume from the production.

The popular Christmas ballet “The Nutcracker” is all about a young girl's dream.

Of course, the story focuses on the dream of a girl named Marie — a dream in which a toy nutcracker shaped like a man turns into a prince and whisks her into a fanciful and action-packed adventure with a nasty Mouse King and a Sugar Plum Fairy.

But “The Nutcracker” also is about the dream of many young children sitting in the audience, who aspire to dance and swoop across the stage amidst all their favorite “Nutcracker” characters someday.

About 15 years ago, David and Debbie Klodowski of Hampton took their children to the Benedum Center in Pittsburgh to see the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's production of “The Nutcracker.”

Their daughter, Katie, then 3 years old, sat completely mesmerized.

“I knew right then that I wanted to be in ‘The Nutcracker' someday,” she said.

She has taken ballet lessons at the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School for the past 14 years and now is in the school's Pre-Professional Division, in which she attends ballet classes Monday through Friday for three hours a day, plus another four and a half hours on Saturdays.

This year is her 11th consecutive season performing in “The Nutcracker” alongside the professional dancers from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, or PBT.

Now a 17-year-old senior at Hampton Area High School, Katie said she is thrilled to play the roles of a butterfly and a flower in this year's production.

“The flowers get to dance in the ‘Waltz of the Flowers,' which is eight minutes long,” she said. “We get to flutter across the stage as Marie and the prince dance. That's my favorite part.”

New to the cast this year is Cassidy Nelson, 8, of Ross Township. She portrays a toy soldier.

“I get to march. I bring out the cannon and make confetti shoot out. I also throw cheese. It's fun,” the Ross Elementary School third-grader said.

Cassidy, the daughter of Kim and Barry Nelson, said being on the Benedum Center stage for her first performance was “sort of scary and exciting.”

Yet nothing, she said, ever could top this opportunity.

Her mother agreed.

“She has loved every bit of this experience — from rehearsals to all the little tricks they use on stage. Her face lights up every time she talks about it,” said Kim Nelson, 36.

Approximately 100 girls and boys ages 8 to 13 auditioned for 60 roles; an additional 30 roles were available for older students, all of whom are enrolled in the PBT School, which has an enrollment of about 900, said Marjorie Grundvig, 45, of Sewickley, director of the PBT school.

This is Mia Manuppelli's third season with “The Nutcracker.” The 12-year-old from Adams Township said she was thrilled to learn she got the role of a party child.

“The party scene is one of my favorites,” the Mars Area Middle School student said.

Mia is the daughter of Susan and Mark Manuppelli.

Last year, she played a party girl. This year, she is a party boy.

“Acting a different gender is harder. I have to put my hair in a flat bun so it doesn't bulge under my wig,” she said.

Mackenzie Cherry, 9, of Franklin Park was cast as a toy soldier and a bumblebee this year. It is her second season with “The Nutcracker.”

“As a soldier, I get to march around the stage and pretend to battle the rats and mice. I also get to faint,” she said.

“As a bee, I circle the Sugar Plum Fairy and follow the flowers. The best part is at the end, when we wave, turn and shake our stingers,” said Mackenzie, a third-grader at Marshall Elementary School and daughter of Karl and Theresa Cherry.

None of this excitement would be possible without plenty of hard work — and a little sacrifice, too.

Rehearsals were held every Saturday from October through early December, except for Thanksgiving weekend. Additional weeknight rehearsals ran as late as 10:30 p.m.

“Because of ‘The Nutcracker,' I couldn't do chorus at school. I couldn't do our neighborhood book club because we meet on Saturdays when I was rehearsing. And I had to come back from an Indian Princess campout with my dad so I could rehearse, but we went back to camp when rehearsal was over,” Mackenzie said.

Now that the show is under way, each student dancer will appear in 12 performances throughout the Dec. 6 to 29 run. The ballet has rotating casts.

Students receive no compensation for their time and effort, yet they consider the experience priceless.

“Many times, I've competed in ballet on stage, but I've enjoyed ‘The Nutcracker' the most,” Mia said.

“I love to see and feel how the magic is put to work. It's very exciting.”

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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