Little girls love "The Nutcracker." Every winter, they flock to theaters to see Tchaikovsky's confectionary treat. Many also take to the stage themselves, this being the rare classic ballet whose cast can include tiny mice and gumdrops as well as more advanced roles such as the heroine, Clara, who is given the enchanted toy nutcracker at the heart of this Christmas fantasy.
"For young dancers, this really is the dream come true," Christina Harward says. The 17-year-old from Tustin — who began her "Nutcracker" career as an angel and a mouse nearly a decade ago — will perform as Clara in Festival Ballet Theatre Company's version of the holiday favorite, which runs Saturday through Dec. 24 at the Irvine Barclay Theatre.
The production features guest artists Gillian Murphy, Gennadi Saveliev, Irina Dvorovenko and Jose Manuel Carreno from American Ballet Theatre and Ashley Ellis and George Birkadze from Sarasota Ballet, company dancers and more than a hundred local children. Harward, who made her debut as Clara last year, will alternate with two other teens. All three belong to Orange County-based Festival Ballet and attend its school, Southland Ballet Academy.
Harward was 7 when she saw her first "Nutcracker," which was presented by the Tustin studio where she had started pre-ballet classes the year before. At 8, she entered the sugar-plum world as a performer. "I almost tripped over the Mouse King's big tail," she recalls. Undeterred, she kept dancing — and moving up the ladder of characters. "I changed roles quite a bit as I got stronger and went on to pointe work."
About four years ago, Harward decided to pursue pre-professional training and enrolled in Southland Ballet Academy, which like Festival Ballet was founded in Fountain Valley in the 1980s by artistic director Salwa Rizkalla.
Her current regimen is intense. Nearly every day is consumed by lessons, rehearsals, cross-training or private coaching sessions. To accommodate her schedule, Harward left public high school in her junior year for a home-schooling program and is set to graduate in June. She plans to enter a few competitions and decide what her next best step will be. (In 2009, she made it to the New York City finals of the Youth America Grand Prix international student ballet competition.) As for her future, she says, "there's no path that doesn't lead to dance."
Every troupe tries to put signature touches on its "Nutcracker" to help it stand out among the countless versions inspired by the 19th century original. Festival Ballet offers what choreographer-director Rizkalla calls a "playful" interpretation "done in the international style." The part of Clara can vary in dramatic significance and technical difficulty. "At Festival Ballet," Harward says, "she is central to the production. It's really the only opportunity for students to have a role of this prominence, so it's a lot of pressure but it's also so much fun."
Among the challenges, Harward says, "is trying to look carefree and sweet, even when you are tired, as you dance the pas de deux with your Nutcracker." (Harward's partner is Tyler Nelson.) Clara also gets to "interact with the guest artists — the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier welcome you to their land — which is a "great reward" and also, she says, "kind of intimidating because you don't want to trip and fall in front of Gillian Murphy."
The tall, slender teen says her debut last year was "exciting and exhausting." One special moment was watching her father as he brought her flowers during the curtain call. "He came out with tears in his eyes," she recalls, "which was the most touching thing because I had never seen my dad cry."
This holiday season, Harward hopes to "find more depth in Clara and the story line than most people give it. It's wonderful when you see a performance that creates the connection of souls that ballet can bring." She was reminded of that connection whenever she visited the lobby after a show. "I would see girls beaming up at me," she says. "I have to hope that one day some of them will be dancing Clara too."
Harward is scheduled to dance at 7 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 17, 6 p.m. Dec. 19 and 2 p.m. Dec. 23. Guest artists will appear at select performances.
Box office information: "The Nutcracker"
What: Festival Ballet Theatre Company
Where: The Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: Saturday-Dec. 24.
Casting and schedule: http://www.thebarclay.com