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Classical Ballet Brings 'Nutcracker' to Life

Shanna Gayer was hanging out in her mother's minivan last Sunday afternoon in front of the Classical Ballet Theatre while her fellow cast mates rehearsed for the opening night of "The Nutcracker" this weekend. Shanna, 14, of Herndon, is playing the role of Clara, but on this day she was recovering from the flu, so in order not to infect the cast she was having publicity photographs taken, then was going home.

"At least she's sick now," said Cynthia Donavin, the Herndon ballet academy's director.

With slightly less than a week before curtain, the theater is buzzing with activity and long rehearsals.

"I don't really have an after-school social life right now," said Alex Kruszewski, 13, of Oak Hill, who is playing among other things the Mouse King. "It's stressful with all the last-minute run throughs. It's hard to find time for homework."

IN THIS, the season of "The Nutcracker," Donavin said the Classical Ballet sets itself apart with professional-level quality. The cast has between 70 and 75 performers ranging in age from 7 to 18 years old, with the major roles going to students with aspirations of becoming professionals. In addition, a few of the male roles are being filled by professionals, because the academy has graduated many of its male dancers.

"There is that commitment to daily training and long hours on the weekend," Donavin said. "There is a professional-level commitment."

Shanna, for one, has been dancing since she was 4 years old. She has understudied the part of Clara for the past two years, finally winning the role.

"It was really exciting," Shanna said. "I was happy, it's fun."

Shanna said that since the first time she saw a production of "The Nutcracker" she has wanted to play Clara.

"My favorite part is when she holds a candle and runs around the rooms," Shanna said. "I try to think a lot of how I would react if I was her, like if I see mice, I'd run into another room, but Clara is curious."

LINDSAY BENSON, 16, from Herndon, will take the stage as the Snow Queen. She has been in the corps de ballet before, but this is the first time as its Queen.

"I started rehearsals today. I'm still getting the hang of it," Lindsay said. "It will be heavy rehearsals this week."

Lindsay, who began dancing 14 years ago, is paired with one of the professional dancers and had not been able to practice with him until last weekend, but she's confident about opening night and is looking forward to many more.

"I'm excited," Lindsay said. "[I love] just being on stage. That's why I dance."

She also gets to share the production with her sister, Allison Benson, 13, who plays a number of smaller roles. Allison says there is no sibling rivalry going on, even though the pair has been dancing together since 1995.

"We've always danced together," Allison said. "She's older, she deserves [the role of the Snow Queen]."

Allison said she is looking forward to the performance, especially how everything seems to come together in the end.

"It's like complete chaos before a show," Allison said. "Then just before I go on, I get a little anxious. The adrenaline starts flowing."

Alex, who has been dancing for three years, said he was motivated to join so he could jump higher. Now, he stays for the athleticism involved.

"I really get a work out," Alex said. "I tried other sports, dancing is the best."