By Kristi Casey Sanders

Every year, Sharon Story and Armando Luna face an awesome task: Casting and training hundreds of children to fill out Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker‘s children’s casts.

“There’s six casts and 53 children in each cast, so this year there are 318 children in the production,” says Story, the dean of Atlanta Ballet’s Centre for Dance Education. The children range in age from nine to 18, although some promising students do get to make their Nutcracker premiere earlier, if Story receives recommendations from their Centre dance teachers.

Finding young dancers who can act is the biggest challenge, says Luna, the Centre’s principal teacher. “In ballet, we’re speaking with our body, and we need to be able to communicate to our audience and tell them what the story is with our body language so the entire audience can understand.”

This ability to communicate nonverbally with the audience is particularly important for the children playing the “principal” parts of Marya, the Nephew and the mischievous little brother, Nicholas. “It is hard finding a boy with the technical ability needed for [Nicolas], so sometimes we have a girl playing it,” Luna says. “But John McFall likes to use boys, and we’ve had some good luck with boys coming in who can act and handle the technical aspects of the part.”

Because of the part’s technical demands, Story says she and Luna often start training potential Nicholases far in advance. “Every year we pick boys from the party cast to learn it; we teach it a year ahead of time. Right now, there are three boys who are learning the part.”

The children’s auditions for Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker are held over two days in September. On the first day, Luna and Story see all the Centre students who want to audition. “I try to take everybody,” Story says. She fills as many parts as she can with the Centre students and then sees what roles still haven’t been filled. The second day of auditions is filled with children who come from all over, some of whom have never had a dance class before. Story picks from the best in the room to fill the available roles.

Not everyone who gets cast is an experienced dancer. “Last year we cast Kevin Silverstein,” says Luna. “He hadn’t had any training, but he was a great actor. He takes classes with us right now and we’re happy to have him. There’s another young man, Cameron, who was in big, he’s also a great actor. He has to learn how to count the music, but he has that exuberant way boys move that John loves. It brings so much to the role of Nicholas.”

Story adds, “It’s all mostly about the animation and their acting. We can teach them the dance steps, but we need them to be very open. … The Fox is a very large theater.” For three solid months, the children work on learning the steps, putting them to music and learning visual landmarks that will help them get back on track should they forget a cue onstage. For hours, they drill the steps so that every gesture and transition is in their bodies.

No matter how well prepared the children are, however, performing in front of nearly 6,000 people per show is a daunting task. “Some of the children get a little worried or anxious,” Luna says. “So company dancers are assigned children to look after and keep track of them. In case they blank out, we’re right there, just in case. … If someone isn’t ready to perform a part, we have them understudy the role and try them next season. If they can’t benefit from that, then we try to use them a little later on.”

Most children, once they get over the anxiety of performing in front of an audience find performing Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker exhilarating. Some, like Christian Clark, who appeared in the world premiere of the ballet in 1994, and Nicole Johnson, who’s danced almost every part in the show, start off as party children, and end up members of Atlanta Ballet’s company of professional dancers.

For hundreds of children, ballet dancers and families, Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker is a tradition. “It captures the spirit of the season,” Luna says. But it’s always a little different because you have different dancers every year. You get to share in this beautiful music and dancing. And coming to the Fox Theatre for a show is a beautiful way to spend an evening or afternoon. If they haven’t done before, hopefully it creates an experience that they would like to do again.”

Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker plays Dec. 1-28 at The Fabulous Fox Theatre.