Northern Liberties Dancer Sparkles (Literally) in 'The Nutcracker'

Pennsylvania Bal­let so­loist Bar­ette Vance Widell, a North­ern Liber­ties res­id­ent, lights up this stage in per­form­ances at the Academy of Mu­sic

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 pabal­, call 215-893-1999 or go to the Kim­mel Cen­ter box of­fice, Broad and Spruce streets.

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