The Connecticut Concert Ballet (CCB) of Manchester has been putting on the production The Nutcracker for over 35 years. Each year, the cherished story is retold of a young girl, Clara, who dreams that the life-sized Nutcracker doll she's just received as a Christmas gift comes to life. Yet each year, while the story remains the same, the choreography is refreshed and the cast of dancers changes.
This year, two teenaged dancers from Tolland have been named as lead roles in the CCB production of the ballet. Serena Lotreck, 13, will perform as the magical Military Doll that Clara's godfather brings her as a gift in the first act of the holiday favorite. Grace Mazzarella, also 13, will alternate roles as a Chinese Lead and as a Marzipan Demi-Soloist in the second act of the show. She will also be a lead Snowflake and a Flower.
Last year was Lotreck's first performing in the CCB's production of The Nutcracker. She said, "It has definitely helped me with stage presence." The dancers are encouraged to take notes during rehearsals, come back and apply techniques. "You're telling a story so that helps knowing what you're supposed to be doing," she said.
In addition to being Military Doll, Lotreck will perform as a Spanish Cora Dancer, a Snowflake, a Ginger Helper and Sugar Plum. "I like them all," she said, "but if I had to pick one, Ginger Helper because it is really fun to work with the kids."
Lotreck began dancing with CCB three years ago after taking a summer intensive at The Hartt School. "They told me I needed more basics in techniques," she said, and that is when she found the ballet school in Manchester. "There are not a lot of people there from Tolland, and it has been great meeting new people," she said.
While this is Mazzarella's seventh year dancing with CCB and her eighth year performing in The Nutcracker, she feels that she has built more stamina and improved her turns as a dancer this year. Not surprising then that of all her roles, she likes the Chinese lead the best. "It's short, and there's a lot of turning and jumping," she said.
Mazzarella has been dancing ballet since the age of seven years.
"Grace was always an active toddler. We enrolled her in gymnastics because she was flexible and bouncy," said her mother, Wendy Mazzarella. "When we added on dance, she never really looked back. She pushed herself to take more and more classes."
Both girls currently devote a great deal of time perfecting their skills as dancers. At their level of performance, they spend six hours a week in classes that include ballet technique and pointe.
"I think the most challenging part of ballet is doing the big, extravagant movements without disregarding basic technique," Mazzarella said. She also takes a pas de deux class and an exercise class for stretching and strengthening. To broaden her education as a dancer, she also takes classes in jazz and modern dance.
Lotreck, a fan of classical music, is trained in lyrical dance. She said at a time in her adolescence when she would normally feel clumsy, "I feel really graceful when I dance and can go in and not knock anything over."
She also performs tap and jazz at here in Tolland, where she has been taking classes for 11 years. "I love the awesome feeling you get when you master a new move," she said.
The girls undergo a rigorous rehearsal schedule for the production, which begins after their mid-September auditions and runs through the first weekend of performance. In the beginning, the dancers have one rehearsal for each of their parts. "Then we begin having complete act rehearsals, so they're really long rehearsals," said Lotreck. A recent Saturday rehearsal went 10:30 a.m. until 6 p.m.
Additionally, Mazzarella takes a two-hour class as a full ensemble member in CCB's pre-professional track. She enjoys the whole aspect of the production of The Nutcracker, from the music and rehearsals to the final performance. "It is fun working together with everyone," she said, "and it's a learning experience too."
While the girls work hard, they manage to find time in their lives for other things. "Ballet seems to give Serena a sense of balance with her schoolwork and her flute and piano playing," said her mother, Susie Ghantous Lotreck. "It mostly makes her joyful. Even after coming home from three to five hours of dance classes, she will dance around the house," she said.
A poem Serena Lotreck wrote last year about The Nutcracker, entitled "Wonders Unfolding" was published in the Connecticut Student Writers Magazine as part of the UConn Connecticut Writing Project. "Liquid emotion slips through ears,/listening with close attention./eyes glued, never wavering/from the picturesque movements above," she writes in the poem, seeming to capture the beauty and joy she finds in the production, but also in dance as a whole.
A high honors student in the eighth grade at , Lotreck admitted the biggest challenge of being a dancer at her level is organizing time to fit in other activities, including play the piano and do homework. She occasionally does homework when she finds gaps of time in rehearsal. "I try to do as much as I can when I get home at night," she said. "Then I get up early in the morning and finish it then so I don't tire myself out."
Mazzarella is home-schooled. "I think it's easier for her to balance the schoolwork with dance because of that," said mother, Wendy.
"One thing all those girls learned is a good amount of discipline. They are very high-achieving kids who work hard at both dance and their schoolwork," she said.
"Last year, Grace won an award for outstanding achievement in the Talent Search for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth," said Kathleen Manero, of the Connecticut Concert Ballet. This year, Mazzarella won a $1000 scholarship for the Boston Ballet's Newton Summer Dance Program. She attended the nationally competitive intensive program for five weeks.
Mazzarella also took the SATs in seventh grade, and according to her mother, did extremely well, even compared to high school students taking the achievement exam. As a result of her performance, the now-eighth grader won a course scholarship to St. Josephs College in West Hartford.
Next year, Mazzarella will be attending E.O. Smith in Mansfield. She feels a combination of nervousness and excitement making the transition from home school. "I'll do my best to keep it scheduled pretty well," she said.
As talented and successful as the two dancers are, they are still girls at heart. Asked what she has learned most from dance that she can apply to other areas of her life, Mazzarella answered, "Self-discipline and learning how to do my own makeup."
Lotreck shared that there is as much fun happening behind the scenes as there is on stage.
"One of my favorite memories is when I was backstage with two of my friends in our costumes, trying to relax at dress rehearsal," she said. "My friend put her braids over her lip like a mustache. It was so funny I couldn't stop laughing."
Once the curtains open and the lights flash on stage, though, the girls are complete professionals. Mazzarella has learned that even when she "does terribly, always smile, no matter what," she said.
Yet Mazzarella is focusing on something far greater when she performs. "I like the art of the dance and bringing the joy I feel when I dance to the audience," she said.
"When you put it all together, from the rehearsals to backstage experiences, too, and then finally to the performance," Lotreck said, "it's something that you never forget."
In all, 250 accomplished cast members from Connecticut Concert Ballet will perform alongside professional dancers from the Island Moving Company, Newport, RI's resident dance company.
Three performances will be held at Windsor High School, 50 Sage Park Road, on December 11 (7 p.m.) and December 12 (1 p.m. and 6 p.m.). Three additional performances will be held the following weekend at Manchester High School, 134 Middle Turnpike East, on December 18 (2 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and December 19 (2 p.m.).
Ticket Information: Preferred Front & Center Seats $28; General Admission $22, Students/Seniors $15, ages 4 and under $10. Tickets are available online, by phone (860) 418-7294, at Dance Village, 171 Spencer St, Manchester, Insparations, 1735 Ellington Rd, South Windsor and Hairdresser on Fire, 176 Broad St, Windsor.