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Heather Hayes
Rylee Rogers rehearses a scene as "Clara" in Ballet West's "Nutcracker."

SALT LAKE CITY — It starts at Ballet West's annual “The Nutcracker” audition in September.

This year, 500 hopeful kids turned up for a chance to dance alongside the pros. Some have taken ballet classes since they were toddlers; others are enrolled in modern, jazz, tap, acting lessons, gymnastics — or in many cases, several at once.

From the selected casts, a handful of the most promising young girls are invited to a separate audition, where they are whittled down to four. These four talented dancers — usually between the ages of 9 and 13 — have landed a starring role as “Clara” in one of the country’s most popular versions of the ballet.

“I still can’t believe I’m going to be Clara,” said Estelle Robbins, 11, who attends Bonneville Elementary School in Salt Lake City. She rehearses several times a week in addition to her ballet classes at the Ballet West Academy. “It’s always been a dream of mine,” she said, adding that her mother, Melanie Watts Robbins, once danced as Clara in the same production.

Ann Bigelow, 10, of Whittier Elementary, wasn’t expecting to land the part either. Also trained at the Ballet West Academy, Ann was cast as a “buffoon” last year.

“Since I’m taller now, I was just hoping to be picked for ‘party girl’ this year,” she said. But being selected for Clara was a big jump she was eager to take.

Although training at the academy is perhaps more intense than some area ballet schools, it’s no guarantee for a spot in the grand-scale holiday production, which runs Nov. 30-Dec. 28 at the Capitol Theatre in Salt Lake City.

Rylee Rogers, 10, of Cedar Ridge Elementary, and McKenna Chugg, 12, of American Fork Junior High, are proof of that. Also chosen as Claras, they train at Barlow Arts Conservatory in Lehi.

“I found out about the role two years ago. It looked so fun,” said Rylee. “Staying on top of my homework is my biggest challenge,” she said, as the weeks close in on opening night and the rehearsals grow longer and more frequent. She studies during her regular drives to and from the theater.

McKenna agrees it can be daunting to meet the demands but is glad for the opportunity.

“My favorite thing is dancing with the Ballet West dancers. They inspire me,” she said. “Even when they’re not ‘on’ in rehearsal, they’re off to the side practicing — they work really hard and they’re so good.”

Perhaps the Ballet West dancers’ dedication is rubbing off on their protégés.

“Every year our Claras get better and better,” said Cati Snarr, who, as the children’s ballet mistress for the company, runs the auditions. “It’s never, 'Will we find the talent to fill these spots?' It’s always, 'What very talented dancer are we going to have to turn away?'”

When looking for Clara, there’s not an archetype in place. Each dancer brings something unique to the role.

“Yes, she must have the technical capability, but we look for maturity on stage, for animation and the ability to tell a story,” Snarr said, adding, “Sometimes we have a beautiful young dancer with excellent technique, but when we work on pantomime in the audition, there’s no expression.”

Is being Clara recompense for the arduous audition and tireless hours of preparation? Are the months of rehearsal at the expense of birthday parties, vacations and sporting events — not to mention the juggling act of keeping up with other obligations — worth the role?

“Being Clara is a memory that will last a lifetime, of that I can promise you,” said Nancy McFall, 72, who danced as Ballet West’s first Clara in 1955.

For McFall, it’s hard to believe that more than 50 years have passed since she danced with the shoestring-budget production directed by Willam Christensen.

“Mr. C,” as he was affectionately called, brought his production — a joint choreographic effort with his brother, Lew — from San Francisco Ballet to the newly formed University Theater Ballet in Salt Lake City. McFall, a member of the troupe, was chosen by Mr. C to be his first Clara when she was 15.

“I did it for six years,” she said. “It felt like my part. I love that role and I love the memories. Nothing compares to getting on a stage and making an audience happy.”

University Ballet Theater became Utah Civic Ballet and finally Ballet West. The production, which almost flopped due to low attendance the first year, slowly gained steam and now holds more than 30 performances each holiday season to huge crowds and national esteem.

McFall has had a front-row seat for the explosion of what was once a tiny ballet production of a less-familiar holiday tale. Now in her 12th year as a volunteer usher at the Capitol Theatre, she helps out because she still loves the theater — and “The Nutcracker.”

“It’s my way of holding on to the memory," she said. "I love watching it year after year.”

To Claras present from a Clara past, McFall offers this advice:

“Stay sweet, kind and let your personality come out on stage, it’s what makes it magical for the audience.”

If you go…

What: Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker”

When: Nov. 30-Dec. 28

Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 West 200 South, Salt Lake City

How much/ticket info: Prices range from $19 to $75 and are available for purchase through ArtTix by calling (801) 355-ARTS or at www.arttix.org

Visit www.balletwest.org for more info.