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By AMY S. ROSENBERG

The Philadelphia Inquirer

December 14, 2008

 

 thomas-harrison-11-practices-some-swordplay

PHILADELPHIA—Being December, this can mean only one thing for Nutcracker families.

 

Crunch time.

 

And perhaps no one is feeling it more than Lisa Harrison, 47, of New Hope, whom today we elevate, in true grand jeté manner, to the position of Pennsylvania’s Ultimate Nutcracker Mom.

 

At one end of the state, Harrison has an 18-year-old daughter, Taylor, dancing in the roles of snow, flower, Spanish and party (that’s Nutcracker lingo) for the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre, where she is in a preprofessional program.

 

And here, at the other end, she has 11-year-old Thomas, dancing the key role of the Prince in 13 performances of Pennsylvania Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, which opened last week at the Academy of Music.

 

As mom challenges go, this is apparently trickier than when you have two kids on two different travel basketball teams. Or perhaps, since these are professional companies, it’s really more akin to being Archie Manning during football playoffs (Peyton and Eli), or Oracene Williams at the U.S. Open (Serena and Venus). That is to say, complicated.

 

And so we ask Lisa Harrison, in a seasonally festive and psychologically probing manner: How are you handling the Ultimate Nutcracker Mom challenge? While your daughter and son are leaping across their stages, how will you and your husband, Mark, be figuring out how to leap across the state? thomas-harrison-11-and-his-parents

 

“Right now, I’m not sure,” Harrison said one recent afternoon, in Saxby’s coffee shop in Manayunk, where she and her husband hunker down over cheesecake and coffee during Thomas’ two-hour afternoon rehearsals at the nearby Pennsylvania Ballet studios in East Falls. “I can deal with it. I was joking we need a helicopter.”

 

Actually, Mark, 51, does have an inside track to the airways, as he is a FedEx pilot and can hitch a ride in the cockpit of a commercial flight. But they will not be able to go together, as one of them has to remain with Thomas at all times, even during performances when the other prince, Peter Weil, 12, of Jenkintown, is on stage, and Thomas is just on call.

 

Thomas, for the first time in his life, after hundreds of times in the audience watching his big sister dance, will not be able to attend any of her dozen or more performances in Pittsburgh.

 

“I’m not going to be able to see her, which is sad,” he said before a rehearsal.

 

“She was a little distraught,” Lisa said of Taylor’s realization that her family would not be in the audience together, and her brother not at all, for her performances.

 

It’s also the first Nutcracker season since the death of Lisa’s mother, Joan Kline, who as a Philly teenager danced on Dick Clark’s Bandstand (back before it was American Bandstand). Her absence will be felt as well—”it’s bittersweet,” says Lisa.

 

This is the homeschooled Thomas’ second Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet, and career third. (Last year, he was a party boy, the year before, in Doylestown, he was a gingerbread boy and a soldier.) Taylor has danced in various Nutcrackers since she was 8.

 

Their mother says she doesn’t know how many performances she has seen. “I’ve lost count. I really have.”

 

Because Pittsburgh’s Nutcracker run ends Dec. 28, a few days before Pennsylvania Ballet’s New Year’s Eve finale, Taylor can fly home to catch the last of Thomas’ performances. But she had to turn down another role in Pittsburgh to do so. And so she did.

 

It was, after all, at one of Taylor’s auditions, for the American Ballet Theatre’s summer intensive program three years ago, that Thomas was bitten by the ballet bug.

 

The more naturally gregarious of the two, he had resisted previous suggestions that he follow in the footsteps of his bookish, intensely dance-focused sister. On this day, however, he saw another boy going through various leaps and turns and was mesmerized.

 

Later, at a restaurant on lower Broadway near the audition, Thomas announced that football was out, ballet was in. Now, three years later, he is poised to play the role every dancing boy wants. (Juliette Mack, 11, and Sara Culbertson, 13, will share Marie, the role every girl wants.)

 

Meanwhile, in Pittsburgh, Taylor—who herself never got to play Marie (called Clara in some versions) and who has been away from home for the last three years at Nutmeg Conservatory for the Arts in Torrington, Conn.,—says her separation from the Harrison Nutcracker hub is difficult.

 

“It’s a little challenging being away from the family and not being able to see my brother,” she said by phone from Pittsburgh.

 

Her current program is very demanding, she said, as she is no longer a student dancer but part of the adult corps, and “there’s more pressure and more dancing and everything’s run on a tighter ship.”

 

Taylor said the age and gender difference allows her more of a mentor relationship with Thomas, sans rivalry or jealousies. “He’s still so young, we won’t be in each other’s way.”

 

Meanwhile, Lisa Harrison is trying to work out the logistics of how to get herself to see Taylor without abandoning Thomas in the wings. But at least some things are easier this year: Because both children are dancing with professional companies, she finally is free of such Nutcracker Mom duties as hooking tutus in the wings, stitching pointe shoes and painting props.

 

Her husband says he’s marked his Google calendar with red for Taylor’s Nutcracker dates and green for Thomas’, and adds, “It’s a blur.”

 

It all feels, well, a little nutty.

 

Meanwhile, these blessed parents are converting their basement to a ballet studio and dreaming of a possible sibling pas de deux one day, if both keep to their goal of dancing professionally.

 

“It will be a day when we’ll bring a lot of hankies,” Mark said.

 

But at least they’ll be on the same stage at the same time.

 

Copyright 2008: The Philadelphia Inquirer, http://www.philly.com

 

 

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