www.theclaycenter.org_____CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- For some dancers, "The Nutcracker" is their first or one of their first introductions to the world of ballet. Arguably the most well-known ballet, "The Nutcracker" is an international holiday tradition, performed annually by thousands of dance companies, including the Charleston Ballet, which opens its show with the West Virginia Symphony Friday night at the Clay Center. "The Nutcracker" is a Christmas classic about a young girl, magical dolls and an epic battle against the mouse king. Productions tend to be lavish with elaborate costumes, brightly colored sets and a small army of dancers, many of whom have spent months preparing for a handful shows during the Christmas season. But like they say, Christmas is but once a year.On Monday, the gazz stopped by rehearsals of the show to talk to some of the dancers, including guest performers from the Columbia (S.C.) Classical Ballet.Sasha Vhyrkrest with the Columbia Classical Ballet was born in the Ukraine and attended dance school in Kiev. A dancer for 20 years, the 30-year-old said what was interesting to him was when he first got started, he wasn't allowed to perform a lot."We were only children," he said. "I performed as one of the party boys, not much work, but it was interesting to see how the stage worked, and I learned a lot." Nations Wilkes-Davis, a 15-year-old originally from Germany, came to the ballet because of his older brother and sister. Wilkes-Davis has been dancing for 10 years and said he might have been 4 or 5 when he saw his siblings perform in "The Nutcracker."His memory was cloudy, but he remembered it well enough."It might have been my first ballet," he said. "It's hard to remember, but I do remember my brother was a cavalier and the rat king. My sister did chimes, and it was just so cool to see."John Michael Abenanty from Brooklyn discovered ballet through one of the cultural outreach programs in New York. The 18-year-old said he remembered the spectacle of his first "Nutcracker.""There's just so much excitement to it," he said. "There's just a lot of imagination with the costumes and the characters. The details in the mice and the toys just seemed so inspired to me that I fell in love with it and just kept doing it."Erica Knowles of Chapmanville has been dancing for 21 years and has probably performed in a "Nutcracker" show most of those years. "The Nutcracker" was probably her first performance. At least, it's the first one she remembered.The 27 year-old said, "It was fascinating and thrilling to be so young and be on stage. I think I was a candy cane. I think everyone my age was a candy cane, but it was wonderful to be on stage with the older dancers."Clare Loftus of Cabell County didn't know what to make of "The Nutcracker" when she first saw it. Her first time dancing in the ballet, she said, was when she was 10."I played a mouse and a candy cane," the 16-year-old said. "The mouse costume looked like a straightjacket, and it felt like it was a 100 degrees wearing it, but it was a lot of fun and very exciting."Maryclare Hewitt, whose daughter Mackey is a member of the troupe, said it was partly her memories of seeing "The Nutcracker" as a child in Georgia that encouraged her to take her own daughter to a show."It's really a holiday tradition," she said. "A way to really get in the spirit of the holidays. I took Mackey when she was probably 4 years old, and it was magical."Just like it was for her.Hewitt added, "She's been dancing for a few years now, performing different roles. She can't wait to go en pointe." Reach Bill Lynch at email@example.com or 304-348-5195.
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