For many Philadelphians, the Pennsylvania Ballet production of The Nutcracker is a much-loved holiday tradition.
And this tradition continues — the production, now in its 43rd year, is so popular that the company is presenting 22 performances at the Academy of Music.
The shows began last Saturday and will continue through the end of the month — often with two performances a day, and three performances scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 17.
Based on the E.T.A. Hoffman tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the Pennsylvania Ballet production features choreography by George Balanchine and a lush score by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky, plus lavish ets and dazzling stage effects, such as the expanding Christmas tree and the sleigh boat that transports Marie and her Prince — it’s suspended on cables as it moves across the stage.
And, of course, that’s without mentioning the dancers who glide effortlessly across the stage all on their own.
But it only looks effortless. Ballerina Barette Vance Widell, of Northern Liberties, can attest to the years of dedication needed to make the production look so seamless.
This is her ninth season dancing in The Nutcracker with the Pennsylvania Ballet. And this year she’s dancing in all 22 performances, taking on three demanding roles (although she’ll dance only one role during any given performance).
In the scene called Marzipan, she’s the lead dancer, with four female dancers behind her.
“It’s erve-wracking,” he confessed. “You have to hop on one leg on pointe (meaning on her toes). And that’s really difficult. There’s a lot of fast footwork, too, that has to be executed just right. The whole piece is very technical.”
Each dancer carries a golden flute while she dances — even when doing irouettes.
It looks lovely to the audience, she agreed.
“But you worry about dropping it, because your hands get sweaty,” said Widell.
She’s also the lead dancer in the Spanish scene. She has a male dance partner, and four other couples dance with them.
“The challenge is to make it really spicy,” she said. “You have to give it a lot of personality — with flair, playfulness, sauciness throughout the dance.”
Her favorite role of all is that of Dewdrop in a scene in which the dancers represent flowers. They dance to the familiar music of Waltz of the Flowers.
Widell does a solo while the others dance in a group.
“Dewdrop has been my favorite role since childhood,” said the ballerina. “It’s so expressive and elegant. And it suits me: I can feel it in my body and soul.”
When she dances, she’ll sparkle — literally.
Her costume is a pink bodice and skirt with jewels, and she wears a tiara with more jewels on her head.
But whatever the challenge, this experienced ballerina will meet it.
Her dancing ability is so noteworthy that it caught the eye of Philadelphia magazine editors when they were searching for subjects for their annual article on “People to Watch” in 2008.
In the January issue, Widell was one of 76 people profiled in the article. It was a group anyone would be proud to be associated with — ranging from Mayor Michael Nutter to Phillies second baseman Chase Utley.
She was among those selected for their work in the arts.
Pennsylvania Ballet board members Janis and Stephen Goodman also were captivated by Widell’s dancing. Two years ago, they decided they wanted to be Widell’s sponsors. She had already been promoted to soloist. But with their sponsorship, she became the Janis and Stephen Goodman Soloist Dancer, which means the Goodmans pay a large portion of her salary.
“It’s a great honor, and they’ve become like family to me,” she said.
While growing up in Laguna Hills, Calif., Widell began her dance training at age 3 and was in her first performance of The Nutcracker four years later, dancing with the prestigious Joffrey Ballet Company.
At 14, the talented dancer won a scholarship to the School of American Ballet, where she danced for five years.
Then, at 19, she joined the Pennsylvania Ballet as an apprentice and was soon promoted to the Corps de Ballet. Another promotion came in 2008, when she advanced to soloist.
Soon after, the Goodmans awarded her their sponsorship.
Another big change came just last month, but this one was not related to ballet.
On Nov. 5, she married Christopher Widell, an executive at Sugarhouse casino. The wedding, attended by 70 friends and family members, took place in San Jose del Cobo on the Baha Peninsula in Mexico.
“We wanted a destination wedding, and we fell in love with this resort,” she explained.
Of course, the couple did plenty of dancing at the reception, ut now she’s focused on her performance in The Nutcracker.
“The music is absolutely gorgeous, and so is Balanchine’s choreography,” she said. “And whenever I’m on the stage and dancing, everything else just disappears. I’m totally involved in the movement and the music.” ••
“The Nutcracker,” presented by the Pennsylvania Ballet, continues at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets, through December. For ticket information and the show schedule, visit paballet.org, call 215-893-1999 or go to the Kimmel Center box office, Broad and Spruce streets.