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By Salena Kitteringham,
The Edmonton Journal
December 08, 2011

’Twas the weekend before The Nutcracker opening and all through the dance studio, dozens of dancers were scurrying, including several sweet little mice. The rehearsals were overseen by Francois Chevennement with care, in the hopes that stretched feet and precision soon would be there.

“We are going to re-run the battle scene again, ’cause it was a mess,” said Chevennement. “One more time, please,” he called out, with further instructions to “stand up straight,” “keep your eyes up, kick your bums,” and “watch your lines.”

“Do you know your right from your left?” he teased a young soldier. “Time to eat some bananas and fish — brain food, so you can remember your counts ….

“I’m going to have you write out the counts with paper and pen, you know what that is? Paper and pen? None of this iPad, iTouch, iWhatever. Old fashioned. Maybe I’ll have you write the counts out on a chalk board. Do you know what a chalkboard is?”

Francois Chevennement, current artistic director of Edmonton’s pre-professional ballet performance company, Citie Ballet, has been using his quirky humour to rehearse the Edmonton children’s cast for Alberta Ballet’s The Nutcracker since he retired as a dancer from the company in 2003.

He is intimately familiar with every step and formation, first working as the rehearsal assistant under William Thompson, then taking over the helm as rehearsal director in 2004 and working closely with choreography Edmund Stripe in 2008 to set the children’s choreography for the company’s new Nutcracker.

Although the key children roles of Klara and Nikolai are now performed by company members in Stripe’s version, The Nutcracker’s heart and soul remains the wonder and awe of the season as experienced by a child.

There are plenty of children roles to fill each year with more than 150 aspiring dancers showing up for auditions in October, each coming from various dance schools and studios from across Edmonton and the surrounding communities of Devon, Stony Plain, Sherwood Park, all vying for one of the approximately 60 spots as Soldiers, Mice, Cossack Rats, Party Boys and Girls, and Pages.

Children are first selected based on their height in order to re-use the costumes each season, with the mice being the shortest and the soldiers the tallest. After the height measurements, acting skills and achievement in ballet technique are the top considerations.

For many young dancers, such as 11-year-old Etienne Rutkowski, making the cut in The Nutcracker is the first step on the road of making it as a professional dancer one day.

“I wanted to audition because I thought it was a great experience, “ he says. “I knew that if I wanted to become a professional dancer it would be good to have these kind of experiences. If I didn’t make it, I knew that would be good too, because I need to get used to not making auditions as well.”

Etienne trains at the Edmonton School of Ballet and is batting two for two at auditions so far this year — cast as Palace Page for the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act 2 of The Nutcracker and accepted to the Royal Winnipeg Ballet School’s professional summer school program on scholarship.

With three to four hour rehearsals each Sunday for seven weeks, Etienne’s mom, Chelsea Rutkowski was a little concerned about the time commitment involved, but said The Nutcracker practices have quickly become the highlight of her son’s week.

“We’ve been attending The Nutcracker together since my children were very little. It’s very exciting to imagine now that I’m going to be able to watch my son.”

Etienne said Chevennement keeps the rehearsals fun. “He’s strict, but not strict where you are scared. He fools around a lot, which is really funny.”

Chevennement understands what his young charges are going through. “It’s a lot of work for them but it’s a good experience because they are going to be onstage with professional dancers and work in that professional environment.

“All of them are thrilled with the experience, year after year, and they come because they love it. They can almost touch the (company) dancers. And the dancers are talking to them backstage. It’s a fantastic experience for them.”

© Copyright (c) The Edmonton Journal

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