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Young students from the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy rehearse a scene from "The Nutcracker."
Young students from the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy rehearse a scene from "The Nutcracker." (Photo: Colleen Jurkiewicz)
From left to right: Isabella Ybarra, Sara Mulrooney, Cassie Dondlinger and Mia Tynan.
From left to right: Isabella Ybarra, Sara Mulrooney, Cassie Dondlinger and Mia Tynan. (Photo: Colleen Jurkiewicz)
The soldiers carry mock rifles into battle.
The soldiers carry mock rifles into battle. (Photo: Colleen Jurkiewicz)

Milwaukee Ballet's youngest dancers perform in "The Nutcracker"

Anna Pavlova, the brilliant, legendary and eccentric turn-of-the-century dancer who revolutionized the practice of ballet, once declared that if she could not dance, she would die.  

Most little girls want to be ballerinas. But only a few actually do it. Because the business of ballet, as it turns out, is a lot different than it may seem in childlike imaginations. Not as many tutus as you would think, and many more gnarled and bloody feet than you would ever expect. A few opportunities to shine, but many opportunities for hard work and disappointment.

But if you feel like Pavlova did, you don’t have a choice. Dance or die.

I attended the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy for several years as a tween/teenager and found it to be an extremely rewarding, if challenging, experience. I was fortunate to participate in the Milwaukee Ballet Company’s production of "The Nutcracker" for two years as a Toy Soldier. For a dozen nights in December I slicked my hair back, wore a white spandex suit and mask and marched out onto the Uihlein Hall stage, pretending to be a boy.

Not exactly a romantic tableau – but it was one of the best times of my life. Some girls have trouble forgetting their first boyfriends – I have trouble forgetting ballet. Even though I moved on, I will always be a ballerina at heart. And when I hear Tchaikovsky’s score for the "battle scene" between the mice and toy soldiers, I’ll always hear the voice of Nancy McCloud, Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy teacher, counting off the steps to the carefully choreographed fight.

I’ve always been grateful to the school for allowing me and many other young artists the opportunity to study and perform with professionals in a field we love. Twelve years after my time there, the Milwaukee Ballet continues to allow students the opportunity to audition for roles in the annual company production of "The Nutcracker" (as well as several other productions, depending on the need for children dancers). "The Nutcracker" roles range from Angel (for the little ones) to Mouse, Soldier, Party Kid, Goose and Mother Ginger Child.

I was pleased to hear Nancy McCloud is still in charge of rehearsals for the "mice" and "toy soldiers" of today as they prepare for opening night. She was kind enough to let me sit down with four young dancers  – two mice (Cassie Dondlinger and Mia Tynan) and two soldiers (Isabella Ybarra and Sara Mulrooney). The girls will perform in the Milwaukee Ballet’s 2012 production of "The Nutcracker," which opens tonight at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts.

I was impressed by their level of dedication to dance at such a young age.

"Dance is pretty much all of our lives," said Ybarra.

It was interesting to hear how the program has stayed the same over the years. There is still a nerve-racking autumn audition before the Company’s artistic director and other faculty members, and accepted students are still accepted or rejected by letter (although now they’ve added email – something that would have made my wait much less excruciating).

"I was driving back from school and then my mom told me (she had gotten the acceptance email)," recalled Ybarra, who has been studying ballet since the age of four and whose mother is a dancer. "So then when I got home I was so excited! And … well, I did my homework. But the next day I got to go to school and tell all my friends."

Most of the enduring similarities made me smile. The Party Kid (children who play young relatives of Clara, Fritz and Marie in the Party Scene of Act I) is still the most coveted of all the roles. And young dancers still obsess over being too tall, as eligibility for each role is determined by level of study and height.

"Last year I tried out for geese, but I didn’t get it because I was too tall," said Tynan, who has been dancing since the age of 2. "The day they measured me I was right at the point, and the next day I grew, like, a quarter of an inch and they still didn’t let me audition, and I was like, ‘No!’"

But disappointment is part of the artistic process. And even at this young age, these dancers realize that. They’re pros. Tynan related the story of a friend who was elated to be assigned the Party Kid role, only to subsequently have to play a boy’s part.

"But the boy (Party Kids) get to do more stuff," said Tynan. "The girls just hold dolls and rock them, but the boys get to scare the girls and have swords and play. I think it’s actually a more fun part."

The girls all expressed a deep love for ballet, as well as a precocious understanding of the work involved. They have class at least four hours every week, plus four hours of "Nutcracker" practice on the weekends. And participation in the production means they can't go out of town for Christmas.

"I think the reason all little girls want to be a ballerina is because they get to wear the pink tutus and everything. They think it’s just wearing tiaras and everything," said Dondlinger.

"It’s not anything like that! We have to wear black leotards and we have to really be focused and you can’t just, like, goof around," agreed Tynan. "You really get tired."

And of course, she realizes that ballet is not as, well, pretty as it seems.

"I walked in on one of the dancers stretching and when she took off her shoe all of her toes had bandages and bruises and it was all bloody and I was just like, ‘Really? That’s what pointe makes you do?’"

"It’s really fun, though," said Mulrooney. "Dancers are way stronger than anyone else."

They all reported that they wish to pursue dance as a professional career – and surprisingly, the company they dream of working for isn’t located in New York, Moscow or London. Nope – these girls all want to be dancers at the Milwaukee Ballet Company.

Tynan hails from Pleasant Prairie and attended a dance academy in her hometown, but now makes the long drive for instruction at the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy.

"We didn’t like it there (at the old school) because the teachers weren’t correcting us or anything," she said. "My mom and I saw 'The Nutcracker' (in Milwaukee) when I was younger and during intermission I told my mom, ‘I want to do that.’ And she said ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘I want to do that. I want to do that kind of dance.’"

Milwaukee Ballet will perform "The Nutcracker" at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through Dec. 26.

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