Young Ottawa dancers will transform into squirrels, frogs, dragonflies and other creatures in December for Ballet Jörgen Canada’s Nutcracker, a Canadian Tradition. Set in Group of Seven-inspired landscapes, including an Algonquin Park forest, the production partners local dancers aged eight to 17 with a professional touring cast.
Chloe Pennock-Banks, 13, of West Wellington is one of 31 dancers selected from over 100 who auditioned in October. She plays a squirrel, which means frolicking with other squirrels, cavorting with chipmunks and interacting with the ballet’s main characters on stage.
“I’m very lucky to get chosen,” says Chloe. It’s her third appearance in the annual production—she was a squirrel last year, and a chipmunk the previous year—but being selected one year is no guarantee of performing the next.
“Since it’s with a professional company, we have to be very on top of things,” says Chloe, who started dancing at age three and trains four times a week at Les Petits Ballets. Being in The Nutcracker means attending weekly rehearsals and doing the best she can. It’s a big commitment, but the Grade 8 Fisher Park Public School student, who’s also appearing in a Les Petits Ballets production of Aladdin at Centrepointe Theatre on December 7, is excited to be involved.
The first year she auditioned, she didn’t make the cut, but a friend talked her into trying out again.
“The first year I went into it, it was my first audition ever, so I didn’t really know how to act,” she recounts. “But the second year, and the year after that, I smiled and tried my best to act like the character.”
Her persistence worked, and now playing the furry characters is part of the fun, despite the hot costumes the dancers wear for the final rehearsal and public performances.
“The squirrel suit is more or less a track suit that has fur and a tail. We have a backpack on stage—that’s our tail—so we have to get used to dancing with a backpack in rehearsals,” explains Chloe.
Chloe’s mom, Jennifer Pennock, appreciates the opportunity for Chloe to dance with a professional company and to experience the highs and lows of auditions.
“I think that kids get a lot out of it,” says Pennock. “One of the things that has been really impressive to me is that they’re really encouraged to problem-solve themselves. If something’s not working, the dancers have to take ownership and figure out what needs to be done to get it right.”
Another Ottawa dancer in the production is Mackenzie Longo, 10, who’s in Grade 5 at Our Lady of Fatima School. It’s her first year performing with Ballet Jörgen, and she’s making new friends and enjoying her role as a frog, which she says requires “a lot of jumping up and down, and a lot of strength.”
Mackenzie’s mom Jessica, a teacher at Our Lady of Fatima, says it’s been a wonderful opportunity for Mackenzie.
“She can’t wait to actually meet the cast and see what it’s like behind the scenes. Everything has been such a learning experience for her,” she says.
Michelle Brawley, founder of Ottawa’s Ballet Society, is the Ottawa youth cast Ballet Mistress for the production, overseeing rehearsals and ensuring the children reach a professional level.
“We try to make it an extremely positive experience where we demand a lot of them,” explains Brawley. “The choreography is not extremely difficult to execute; it’s the speed of it and the formation that need to be impeccable.”
The dancers must also bring their animal characters to life and learn how to support and critique each other.
“The children are really enthusiastic and they work really, really hard,” says Brawley.
Auditions for Ballet Jörgen’s The Nutcracker, A Canadian Tradition are announced each spring and held in October. Performances take place this year at Centrepointe Theatre December 14 and 15 at the Shenkman Arts Centre December 16 and 17.