by Chelsea Dill
“One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four,” counts dance instructor Paula Meola, clapping her hands to keep dancers in time to the lively music of Tchaikovsky’s score for The Nutcracker ballet. A few weeks into rehearsal for the annual production of Paula Meola Dance’s The Nutcracker, the young dancers skip and act joyfully surprised as they practice the party scene. It’s clear that magic is happening even before anyone sets foot on stage.
“I can’t remember a Christmas when we haven’t done The Nutcracker,” says Meola, owner and teacher at Paula Meola Dance (PMD), 50 Leominster Road, Sterling. A dancer all her life, she began dancing in Boston Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker when the troupe performed at the old Worcester Auditorium. This year, Meola is staging her fifteenth annual production, and every year she feels renewed pride and honor at bringing the holiday classic to loyal audiences that return year after year, and introduce it to new ones.
Meola’s The Nutcracker began as a small group traveling to local schools and performing in cafeterias. After purchasing the Sterling studio 14 years ago, she decided to boost the production to a professional level. “There’s a lot of talent in the studio,” says Meola, who recruits dancers from Festival Ballet in Providence, Rhode Island, for the male lead roles. “The girls at the studio need and deserve to have professional partners because they are able to work at that level.”
Though the main roles are performed by teenage dancers, all of the school’s dance students are given a part in The Nutcracker, including dancers as young as six. This year, over 140 dancers are taking part in the production, including 15-year-old Kristen Lambert in the coveted role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Lambert has danced in past Nutcracker productions, but this will be her first performance in a leading role. In rehearsal, Meola and ballet faculty member and Bolshoi Ballet graduate Sasha Lunev teach her variation choreography, as well as the original classic steps by famed French choreographer Marius Petipa.
“The choreography we do here for our Nutcracker is what you will see in every single ballet company throughout the world,” says Meola. Teaching students traditional choreography gives them an edge for future auditions and keeps the spirit of classical ballet alive for new generations.
PMD’s annual production of The Nutcracker has evolved into a tradition not only for Meola and her dancers, but also for the central Massachusetts community. “For a lot of people, their holiday season begins with our Nutcracker,” Meola says, pointing to the positive feedback she has received from countless audience members, thanking her for carrying on the yearly production. “It’s the music, it’s the lights, it’s the poinsettias, it’s the backdrop, it’s the whole thing,” she says.
In addition to two public performances at Montachusett Regional Technical School in Fitchburg, Meola hosts two free shows for local schools, a significant experience for the cast, as well as the audience. “It’s rewarding to know that we can touch so many people’s lives outside of the families that dance here,” she says. For many in the student audience, attending PMD’s The Nutcracker marks their first time going to the theater, as well as experiencing ballet. Meola ensures the atmosphere in the theater is welcoming for the new audience. Cast members answer questions about the production and the audience is encouraged to participate by cheering for the Nutcracker and jeering the Mouse Queen.
Now in rehearsal, the dancers walk by a bulletin board displaying handwritten notes and festive drawings from the public and local students who attended last year’s performances. This constant reminder tells everyone at PMD that the production reaches far beyond the theater walls. “It’s a tradition. We’re providing something that means so much to the general public, and we sell every seat at Monty Tech,” Meola says. Every seat filled means giving her dancers an audience of 4,000 over the course of the four performances.
Every year, a couple of weeks after the performances, big manila envelopes stuffed full of new letters fill Meola’s studio. Dancers gather together and read the heartfelt words of praise. Though still a few weeks away, the dancers view the performances as goals to work towards and help them to develop a strong work ethic. “The Nutcracker gives the school a common thing to celebrate,” Meola says, emphasizing that everyone—dancers, faculty, craftsmen, and parent volunteers—come together to put on the best show possible.
Back in the studio, Meola leads her students as they synchronously shake shiny gold gift boxes, as if trying to figure out what’s inside. If the excited expressions on the young dancers’ faces are any indication of the high energy of the final performance, the audience is in for another spectacular show. “I feel very grateful that my parents allowed me to experience performing in The Nutcracker when I was growing up,” Meola says, “It creates good memories, and I think our production will stay with our dancers for a long time.”
Public performances December 5 and 6, 2 p.m., at Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School, 1050 Westminster St., Fitchburg. For tickets and more information, contact Paula Meola Dance at 978-422-6989, or visit paulameoladance.com.