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Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

Acting 'The Nutcracker'

Dancers share insights into Milwaukee Ballet's holiday classic

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If good fortune brings you to The Nutcracker this year—as you enjoy the children from the Milwaukee Ballet School playing the angels in the second-act curtain raiser, think on this: Raven Wales, a virtuoso artist featured in the sensational, sexy Arabian Dance just ahead, was such an angel once.

As choreographed by Artistic Director Michael Pink, The Nutcracker is about growing up. This year's version is Wales' favorite of the three Nutcrackers she has danced here since age 7. "It's a tradition for the dancers, too," she says. "It's a big, bonding family thing for us. We know what we're doing and we get to expand on that every year."

"Because we've done it so long, the partnerships are really strong," adds Marc Petrocci, who has danced the major role of Fritz since 2003, when Pink "used me as a conduit" to create the character, the naughty younger brother who shares the fantasy adventure with his sisters in this unique rendering of the traditional story. "It's like every imaginary game I played as a child," he says of bringing Fritz to life. "Each year, Fritz has been whatever was happening for me that year."

This year his return to the role is profoundly joyful. He was sidelined by a serious knee injury after closing The Nutcracker last year. "This is the first production in which I'm legitimately back," Petrocci says.

David Hovhannisyan has played Karl, the romantic male lead, since 2004. "At the beginning," he says of the character, "he's very shy. He likes Marie a lot. As it progresses, he becomes the Nutcracker, then her dancing partner. When I started dancing it, I hadn't been dancing professionally for very long. Now I have a family and kids. For me, it's my life story. At the same time, I have to bring the young guy back."

Ryan Martin started playing Karl in 2005. He and Hovhannisyan have the stature and technique for ballet's classic prince roles, but "Michael doesn't want Karl to be a prince," Martin says. Pink wants the men to ground the role in real experience.

Luz San Miguel has danced Marie since 2005. Another of Pink's inventions, Marie is Clara's older sister with a crush on Karl. In Clara's dream, which comprises most of the ballet, Karl saves them from an army of mice and becomes Marie's adoring boyfriend. The dancers agree that Pink's version makes more sense than the traditional story with its Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier arriving for no good reason at the end to dance the final pas de deux. Pink has Clara dream Marie into a tutu'ed ballerina executing treacherously difficult steps en pointe to the Sugar Plum Fairy music—so difficult, in fact, that when San Miguel hears the famous tune in shopping malls, "It makes my eye twitch."

She sees her character as "15 or 16, a difficult age; she has to be cooler than her brother and sister, but not an adult. She matures through the piece."

"It's a story of first love," says Yuki Clark, who is dancing Marie for the fourth year. Clark has danced six versions of The Nutcracker on three continents and considers Pink's "more emotional than any other." The snow pas de deux is her favorite "because it's so soft."

She's referring to a swooning duet for Marie and Karl featuring a difficult series of lifts. It follows the battle with the mice in which Karl plays the Nutcracker soldier. Martin describes the difficulty: "The Nutcracker mask has tiny eyeholes," he says. "You're trying to breathe, trying to make sure you aren't killing anybody. Then the mask comes off and you have to start lifting."

Pink's choreography, challenging technically and in terms of stamina, is part of what keeps each performance in the moment for the dancers. Another factor is the amount of improvisation allowed them, especially the children and the childish Jack-in-the-Boxes, also played by these men.

"We have choreography we have to do," Martin says, "but otherwise we're just out there to make people laugh, especially the kids."

"Or scare them," Petrocci says, laughing.

The Nutcracker runs Dec. 10-26 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts, 929 N. Water St. For more information, call 414-902-2103 or visit www.milwaukeeballet.org.

John Schneider is an actor, too.