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They’re back! Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, audiences have missed seeing some of the cutest dancers in the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker, children as young as seven cast as baby mice and Mounties. This year the holiday classic, running Dec. 21 through 28, will be back in full swing: a total of 84 students from the school’s recreational and professional programs will be featured.
Arguably, one of the most enjoyable parts of watching any Nutcracker production is the joyful, imaginative atmosphere, bolstered by the enthusiastic children who grace the stage. Each year, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet chooses six children from the professional school to dance the roles of Clara, Julien and Dieter. The ballet also incorporates dancers from the recreational school in roles including polar bears, party children, baby mice, Mounties and reindeer.
In 2021, due to ongoing COVID-19-related health restrictions, the ballet scaled back its cast of polar bear dancers by about half and completely cut the much-loved baby mice and Mounties. This year, all of the Nutcracker’s popular child roles will be back, said Katrin Benedictson, vice principal of the recreational division.
Dancing in Nutcracker, for both professional and recreational students, is a special opportunity, she said. For students from the professional division, “This is probably their first big leading role,” said Kendra Woo, member of the professional division artistic faculty, who works directly with the students in the show. There are only six roles for professional students – two as Clara, two as Dieter and two as Julien.
“I know it’s one of those things that’s a bit coveted as you’re going through the school,” she said, noting that many students who are cast in these roles begin to ask themselves questions such as “Do I really want to pursue this for the rest of my life? Is this the dream?”
The students from the professional school who are dancing in leading roles this year confirmed that being part of Nutcracker is incredibly formative, encouraging them to consider what their futures might look like in the world of ballet.
“I think it’s very, very neat because being with the company shows us what we’re going to be doing in our future, and it’s a gateway into being in the company,” said Nathan Williams, 14, who will be dancing in the role of Julien.
Most students at the ballet school hear about Nutcracker very early and aspire to be in it from a young age.
“Ever since I was little, I wanted to be Clara,” said Bella Watkins, 14, who will be fulfilling her childhood dream this holiday season.
Oliver Sinex, 12, who will be performing as Dieter, also aspired to be in the show from a young age.
“When I was six, I started ballet and learned about Nutcracker very quickly,” he said, “I’m really excited to do it.”
Nutcracker also provides a unique opportunity for recreational school students, said Benedictson.
“The majority of them are too young to have started pursuing any kind of professional training,” she said. “So for them, it’s a taste of what could be, whether it’s as a ballet dancer or as a different style of dancer, seeing what goes on behind the scenes – seeing the set design, seeing the crew, seeing the artistic staff in action.”
Owen Fleetwood, who is nine years old and has been with the recreational school since he was five, said he has wanted to be in Nutcracker since he saw it performed in Moscow.
“It’s so cool that they have kids in the ballet. I feel lucky I get to dance with them,” he said. He will be onstage as one of the party children this year.
Hailey Latigar, 11, who is also from the recreational school and will be playing a partygoer alongside Fleetwood, pointed out that having more kids in the ballet is also great for the parents.
“If you have kids, you see them onstage and you see what they can do,” she said.
This year, there will be 78 recreational school students dancing in the ballet in total, which brightens the atmosphere for professional school students, the post-secondary Aspirants and the company dancers.
“It’s really fun to be in rehearsals with the Mounties and the party kids and the smaller kids,” said Dorothea Liu, 11, who will be playing the role of Dieter.
Watkins added that including younger children in Nutcracker “really shows the audience how young some of the kids are and how young we are when we start training.”
All the students agreed that Nutcracker is an especially joyful ballet with lots of spirit that everyone should have a chance to see or take part in, if they so choose.
“It’s important to me so that everyone can have something to enjoy at Christmastime,” said Fleetwood.