PNB shares trade secrets on the role of Clara in George Balanchine’s 'The Nutcracker.' (Hint: It’s more than just candy canes and snowflakes.)

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The story of “The Nutcracker” revolves around Clara Stauhlbaum, a young girl who falls asleep after a Christmas party and dreams of a battle royale, a life-size Nutcracker, and a magical candy palace filled with new friends.

It’s an honor for any young ballerina to be cast as Clara in “The Nutcracker.” At Pacific Northwest Ballet this Nutcracker season, two Pacific Northwest Ballet School students share the role in 39 performances; Samrawit Saleem plays Clara in 20 performances, while Kendra Ko performs in the other 19.

The Sugar Plum Fairy (Lindsi Dec) says goodbye to Clara and her Prince (Kendra Ko and Enrique Fue). (Lindsay Thomas photo)
The Sugar Plum Fairy (Lindsi Dec) says goodbye to Clara and her Prince (Kendra Ko and Enrique Fue). (Lindsay Thomas photo)

From jumping onto a bed almost as tall as herself, to rapidly removing a shoe and tossing it (with gusto!) straight at the Mouse King’s seven heads, to riding in a sleigh powered by flying reindeer, the girl who plays Clara has one of the most important jobs onstage.

Clara’s side of the story

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Clara lives in New England with her family, who immigrated to America from Germany. Clara’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum, are played by PNB Company dancers, while the role of her pesky younger brother, Fritz, is given to another PNB School student.

In the first act of “The Nutcracker,” party guests mingle and dance as Clara’s godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, doles out gifts – dancing dolls, magic tricks, a hobby horse, and the infamous wooden Nutcracker given to Clara herself. Drosselmeier’s nephew Nathaniel provides Clara with a bed for her toy.

Later that night, after saying goodbye to party guests and friends, Clara falls asleep, and the real magic begins. A fantastical fight scene takes over what used to be Clara’s living room, and her character saves the day by distracting the Mouse King, who takes a swift shoe to the head. A life-size Nutcracker doll delivers the final blow and places one of the Mouse King’s crowns on Clara’s triumphant (but probably confused) head.

Clara and the Nutcracker – who turns out to be a prince, who also appears to be Nathaniel – walk through a snowy land to their boat. They end up in the Land of Sweets, where they take a back seat to brilliantly costumed characters dancing their hearts out. And at the end, a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer takes them back to reality.

Samrawit Saleem began dancing at PNB through DanceChance, an equity program for kids with potential to become ballet dancers. (Angela Sterling photo)
Samrawit Saleem began dancing at PNB through DanceChance, an equity program for kids with potential to become ballet dancers. (Angela Sterling photo)

This year’s Claras: Kendra and Samrawit

This year’s students performing the role of Clara are not new to PNB or “The Nutcracker.” Both Kendra and Samrawit are Level IV PNB School students, 11 years old, and in 6th grade.

Samrawit started dancing in the fall of 2014 as a member of PNB’s DanceChance program – an effort by PNB to improve equity and access in classical ballet training. DanceChance partners with Seattle Public Schools to invite students with interest and potential to study at Pacific Northwest Ballet School free of charge.

Samrawit played an angel in the 2015 production of “The Nutcracker,” and last year she performed as a Polichinelle.

Kendra started dancing at PNB School in the summer of 2012 in PNB’s Eastside Summer Dance Workshops at the Francia Russell Center. She took a Creative Movement class that fall, and she’s been studying at PNB School ever since.

Kendra performed in the final production of Kent Stowell & Maurice Sendak’s “Nutcracker” in the role of Little Girl, then an Angel in George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” in 2015, and the Trumpeter in 2016.

This year, they’re the only girls who will perform the role of Clara … with no understudies.

In 2015, Kendra Ko performed as one of the Angels in Act II of “The Nutcracker.” This year, she plays Clara. (Lindsay Thomas photo)
In 2015, Kendra Ko performed as one of the Angels in Act II of “The Nutcracker.” This year, she plays Clara. (Lindsay Thomas photo)

Auditioning for Clara

Auditions for “The Nutcracker” happened all the way back in September. Roles available at yearly “Nutcracker” auditions include Party Girls, Party Boys, Mice, Soldiers (of varying heights), Angels, Candy Canes, and Polichinelles … not to mention the coveted roles of Clara and her Prince.

At the audition for Clara, 81 girls from Levels III and IV showed up to become part of “The Nutcracker.” And if they’re given another role, just like Samrawit and Kendra, kids cast in “The Nutcracker” commit to performing in 19 or 20 performances throughout the run of the show.

Samrawit and Kendra began rehearsing the role of Clara in the beginning of October, averaging 3-4 hours of rehearsals each week. By the time “The Nutcracker” opened in late November, they were ready to tackle all 39 performances together.

Clara is typically a Level IV student and must be under 5’2” to audition. Both Samrawit and Kendra could audition again next year; Eden Anan performed as Clara in both the 2015 premiere and the 2016 Pacific Northwest Ballet production of “The Nutcracker.”

“The first few shows, I [got] a little nervous, but after that, I kind of get the hang of it,” Eden says. “It’s amazing to be part of something so big.”

See “The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s cherished score played live by the Pacific Northwest Ballet Orchestra, the brilliant dancing of PNB dancers, Ian Falconer’s new scenery and costumes, and Seattle Center’s McCaw Hall all dressed up for the holidays.