B y Donna Frischknecht

A hush of anticipation filled the empty auditorium of Castleton University’s Casella Theater.
On a Sunday morning in early December it seemed as if not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. But the stage lights shining brightly and the familiar sounds of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” filling the room revealed a stirring indeed.
Little girls – some dressed in soft pastels with others in vibrant colors – stretched, twirled, laughed and played.
They were there to prepare for an opportunity of a lifetime: To rehearse for the upcoming production of Albany Berkshire Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”
The girls were part of a program offered by the ballet that invites local children to participate in a professional production. A call for volunteer dancers went out in the fall, encouraging those interested to sign up. Among the ballerinas who did just that was Anna McGee.
The seven-year-old from Whitehall, looking every bit like a professional dancer with her brown hair pulled into a bun and dressed head to toe in blush pink, was excited to be there on stage. Her brown eyes widened as she listened to the instruction of choreographer, Cheryl Cantarella, a volunteer for the ballet who made a two-hour drive from her Massachusetts home that morning.
“Okay, reindeers, lift up your arms,” Cantarella said, illustrating her best reindeer prance. McGee took her place front row in the line up of reindeer, lifted her arms and waited for the music to begin.
“Arms up,” Cantarella yelled above the music. “Turn, keep walking, smile, stop…wonderful job, girls.”
McGee smiled. She was pleased with her performance. So was Cantarella. The reindeer dance was practiced and done. Next up was the clown dance followed by the iconic dancing mice.
McGee took her place in each, listening, watching and performing her best. It was time to take a break. McGee, though, didn’t huddle with her fellow reindeer, clown and mice.
The aspiring dancer, who admits she wants to be a “pop star in France,” sat cross-legged front and center on the stage watching intently each step taken by the older, more experienced ballerinas.
“Okay, one more time girls,” Cantarella said, turning to the younger crowd on the sidelines. Within seconds, McGee was back to dancing.
“This is such a great opportunity for these girls, especially for those who live in small rural towns,” said Heather McGee.
McGee learned about the Albany Berkshire Ballet call for young volunteer dancers through her daughter’s dance school, Step ‘N’ Time, located in Whitehall. Studio owner Gretta Namcek Stanclift knew of the ballet’s program of offering dancers an opportunity to perform in a professional production and shared the information with her students.
“I really do hope more kids from Whitehall take advantage of this,” McGee said.
Since 1960, Albany Berkshire Ballet has been bringing the arts into rural areas like Whitehall. It is a mission that continues to be dear to the hearts of Albany Berkshire’s founder and owner, Madeline Cantarella Culpo, who started the company more than 40 years ago in Pittsfield. In 1989, the company opened a second home in Albany.
“We hope to enter into more towns and incorporate more youth,” added Katy Culpo, a volunteer coordinator for the ballet who married into the business.
Recently, the ballet entered into a partnership with the Norman Rockwell Museum, offering an interactive educational arts program combining visual arts and professional dance.
As for now, Anna McGee is only focused on the Dec. 18 performance.
“I’m excited,” McGee said. Part of that excitement is due to the three costumes she gets to wear, her favorite being the reindeer, complete with jingle bells around the collar and furry sleeves.
“The mouse costume is cute, too,” she said, “and I do like the purple hat I wear as a clown.”
With the next group of dancers coming in to rehearse, it was time for McGee to go. With her bun beginning to come undone and her blush pink leotard a bit wrinkled, the Whitehall dancer had had a productive rehearsal. And with the confidence of a seasoned dancer, she left the empty auditorium with great excitement, showing no nerves for the big day to come.
“I hope she always keeps that free spirit and never loses that self worth,” said her mom.

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