By Ellen Dunkel, Inquirer Staff Writer
At 10, Jane Cohen of Moorestown is already a veteran of Pennsylvania Ballet's George Balanchine's The Nutcracker. In the last two seasons she's been the bunny, an angel, and a grandchild.
This year's goal was to be a girl in the party scene and a Polichinelle - one of the children who emerge from Mother Ginger's immense skirt.
Instead, she was stunned to find herself cast as Marie, the female child lead.
Jane had dreamed one day of landing the coveted role, but "I thought maybe two years from now."
Nor was she the only one so happily surprised.
"I was hoping I'd get Fritz," the part of Marie's little brother, said Aidan Duffy, 9, of Philadelphia. "I screamed when I was Fritz!"
Then he was doubly shocked to learn that he also had been cast as the Prince, the male child lead, in alternating performances.
For the first time in more than 20 years, Pennsylvania Ballet opted against auditioning children from across the region for its Nutcracker; instead, the field was narrowed to students at its own School of Pennsylvania Ballet, which reopened in 2012 after a 22-year hiatus - a feat they hadn't expected to swing after just one year. But, said Arantxa Ochoa, who retired as a company principal in 2012 to become lead teacher at the school, "The kids are ready."
Ochoa taught the children bits of choreography before parts were assigned. To make things work size-wise, the three girls and two boys chosen to dance Marie and the Prince are new to the roles, and younger than those usually selected.
Along with Jane, Abbie Rorke, 11, of Philadelphia, and Grace Arrison, 10, of Malvern, will dance Marie. Aidan and Josh Selvin, 11, of Bala Cynwyd, will alternate in the roles of the Prince and Fritz. Tino Karakousis, 7, of Philadelphia, will also dance Fritz.
In all, 93 of the school's 145 students have been cast in the ballet, including some advanced students who are filling corps de ballet parts previously given to freelance dancers.
Of the children not cast, most are too tall. A third Prince was chosen, a boy who danced the role last year, but when he tried on the costume he found he had outgrown it. Another potential Prince, Jonathan Block, instead is performing in the Walnut Street Theatre's current production of Elf.
For months, Nutcracker was all the talk around the barre at the ballet's school.
"A lot of people told me I'd be Marie, but I didn't believe them," Abbie said. She was even more skeptical when summer passed with no word from the company - children dancing Marie and the Prince traditionally get early notice so they have more time to prepare.
"They didn't tell us anything," Grace agreed, though it was worth the wait: "I cried when I was Marie."
But casting only children from the School of Pennsylvania Ballet changed the game, Ochoa said. In the past, they worked with children from all over the region and thus around a variety of schedules. Weekends were the only time kids could rehearse.
Now, she said, "During the week we can rehearse. We finish class and then we have rehearsal."
Still, it isn't easy. Some days the students attend their academic schools, then have up to 21/2 hours of ballet class, followed by another two hours of rehearsal before they can go home.
It's enough to make a child act like a child.
"He gives you a little kiss," Ochoa instructed at a recent rehearsal for the five leads. Jane giggled as Aidan bent over to plant one on her outstretched hand.
"You cannot laugh," Ochoa gently scolded. "Are you going to laugh in the show?"
Josh - whose great-grandmother, Seraphina Taylor Cohen, danced with the Atlanta Ballet - observed helpfully that "the Prince and Marie used to be older, so the Prince and Marie used to be taller and more mature."
True, says Ochoa, but she feels that's part of her pint-size cast's charm.
"They have an innocence that goes with Marie," she said "They are little girls, they don't have to pretend. You're just looking at the story. It's not about having the perfect technique. It's about being a young girl, Christmas Eve, being excited. They are innocent and pure."
The young dancers have bars to clear. "I think the Prince and Fritz is hard," Aidan said of his combo casting. "We're told to be very big" for the Prince, Josh added, "and then very evil" - or at least bratty - for Fritz.
Still, they are up for the challenge. "It's great for them," Ochoa said. "They show a completely different side. They have to completely change."
"I like the battle [between the mice and soldiers], because there's a lot of acting," Abbie said. "And when the bed spins, it's going to be awesome."
"I like the battle, and the beginning of Act 2, because that's where the crowd claps the most," Josh said. "And we get to fly away at the end!" Aidan added.
Pennsylvania Ballet is planning future seasons with their students in mind. Meanwhile, last spring, Abbie and Grace danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem at the Annenberg Center, and in Pennsylvania Ballet's Midsummer Night's Dream. The company will repeat Midsummer in June at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and plans to bring its children's cast along.
But for now, the roles of Marie and the Prince are the pinnacle of children's ballet stardom, in a Nutcracker filled with magical moments.
"It's like their dream," Ochoa said.
Is it also the first step toward their destiny? Abbie and Aidan said they weren't sure they wanted to dance professionally, while Josh said he might like to follow in his great-grandmother's steps.
"I want to be a dancer when I grow up," said Grace, whose mother studied with Pacific Northwest Ballet. "It's been my dream since I was 3."
Jane has it all planned out. "When I'm 16, I want to go to Paris and I want to be in Paris Opera Ballet for two years. And then I want to be an astrophysicist."
George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
Saturday through Dec. 29 at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets. Tickets: $35-$135. Information: 215-893-1999 orwww.paballet.org