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July 2014

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Clarendon student dances onstage for Milwaukee Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

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Welcome to our Songs of the Season series. Each week in December, we will feature a story inspired by a well-known Christmas song. We hope these stories help you get into the spirit of the season.

Every year since she was 4, Natalie Plitt has gone to see the "Nutcracker" ballet, however, this year, her view of the ballet will be from the stage — as a soldier in eight shows with the Milwaukee Ballet.

"The Nutcracker" runs Dec. 14-27 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts and involves 26 Milwaukee Ballet company members, 20 college members in Milwaukee Ballet II, and 142 students, ages 7-18, in the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy, according to Renee Griswold, Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy general manager.

"The company and the students have been working separately; now is the time to put it all together," said Griswold.

Putting it all together starts this week for Natalie, a student at Clarendon Avenue Elementary School, as she starts working with professional dancers she's admired all those years growing up watching the "Nutcracker." Natalie started dancing with the Milwaukee Ballet School and Academy when she was 3, building her skill and strength with each year.

"She always liked to move, and she always loved music, especially classical, orchestral music," explained Natalie's mom, Juli. "Orchestral music would come on, and she would start to move, and not all little kids would hear that, would hear the beat to orchestral music."

While Natalie, now 10, danced a couple of years at Kay's Academy of Dance in Mukwonago, her love of ballet pulled her to the Milwaukee Ballet School. Performing in three previous shows with the Milwaukee Ballet — "Alice in Wonderland twice" (once as a bunny and once as a bird) and the "Adventures of Chipolino" once, Natalie was a quarter inch too tall to qualify for a part as a mouse in the "Nutcracker." After auditioning with about 70 other young dancers, Natalie earned one of 26 spots for soldiers in the ballet.

Students must meet three requirements to perform in the" Nutcracker," according to Griswold. Dancers must be fully enrolled in the academy, must meet height requirements to fit into costumes and must attain the level of dancing expertise for the role.

Natalie started rehearsing in October, spending two hours every Saturday and Sunday to learn the precise, complex dance of the soldiers. Since soldiers dance on stage with the principal dancers, the young dancers must always find their exact spot on the stage so the principals don't get injured, Juli explained. One of Natalie's favorite scenes is the battle scene, led by Fritz, where the choreography of pros combines with the students'.

Along with dancers, the Milwaukee Ballet performance features its own orchestra performing live at each show, said Griswold. Fourteen members of the stagehand crew, an "army of 20 parent volunteers" to supervise students and help with costumes, and seven loads of laundry after every show, along with the administrative and artistic staff, bring the ballet to life.

"It's very magical when the audience sees it onstage," Griswold said.

Although the magic onstage is obvious to all who come to see the "Nutcracker," the magic of life skills learned by students is less visible to some.

"We watch the kids grow up," explained Griswold.

Self-discipline, self-motivation, a strong work ethic, self-confidence and perseverance to practice skills repeatedly to accomplish a level of expertise for performing on stage are some of the life lessons academy students obtain, Griswold said. Students learn to work with professional dancers and learn how to deal with disappointment and excitement and working while working with other students.

Juli has seen these lessons shape in Natalie as she works to her goal of dancing on point in a couple of years.

"I'd rather dance than have free time," said Natalie.

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