Two students from Springfield perform in BalletMet's 'The Nutcracker'

Attending a performance of “The Nutcracker” is a highlight of the holiday season for many families. But two young Springfield dancers are experiencing the famous ballet on-stage this year, instead of in the audience.

Annie Fleming, 12, and Dina Rulli-Heaphey, 17, are performing in BalletMet’s current production of “The Nutcracker,” running through Dec. 24 at the Ohio Theatre in Columbus.

“‘The Nutcracker’ is kind of a magical show,” says Annie, who lives in the South Fountain Historic District and plays multiple parts in the show, including a party girl and a mouse. She appears in the entire first act and one dance in the second act.

Dina agrees and says that the show attracts many who don’t regularly attend ballet performances.

“It’s a great way to introduce, especially young kids, to ballet,” says Dina, who is enrolled in Springfield High School’s online program. She appears in the show as a soldier in the battle scene and a maid in the party scene.

Annie, who began ballet when she was 4, auditioned for the production in September and started rehearsals the following month. This is her first “Nutcracker” role and her first time on stage at the Ohio Theatre.

“It’s been a really great experience,” says Annie, who is a member of the BalletMet Dance Academy. She is in one of the performance’s four casts, appearing in six shows while also being on-call for her counterparts in the other casts.

Annie, who is homeschooled to accommodate her dance schedule and travel times to Columbus, incorporates dance into her daily life aside from her regular classes. She practices her footwork for 90 minutes each morning before her schoolwork. Even walking to the kitchen, she’ll practice her turns.

Annie’s mother, Mandie Fleming, says her daughter once said she feels most alive and most like herself when she is dancing. When she asked Annie if she could imagine herself doing anything else, her answer was quick.

“What else would I be doing?” Annie responds.

Dina started ballet when she was 3 but says she became serious about it only a few years ago.

This year she was offered a trainee position with BalletMet, which she describes as “kind of like college for ballet” and includes classes six days a week.

“It’s really helped me get to another level with training,” says Dina, who hopes to make a career of ballet.

This also is Dina’s first role in “The Nutcracker,” as well as her first professional company show.

She appears in two of the four casts, in a total of 10 shows.

“I’m so honored to have all of these opportunities and to be able to do what I’m doing here,” she says.

Last year, when Dina was in the audience for a BalletMet performance of “The Nutcracker,” she hadn’t imagined that this year she would be cast in a role.

“It feels unreal to be onstage like that, especially at a theater like The Ohio,” she says.

Like Annie, Dina too can’t imagine a life without ballet. When “The Nutcracker” ends its run, both Springfield girls will be looking toward auditions for summer ballet programs. Dina, who will graduate from high school in the spring, also is looking ahead toward auditions for trainee programs.

Maria Torija, director of the BalletMet Dance Academy, calls both Dina and Annie dedicated and “extremely, extremely hard-working.”

In addition to the professional company of more than 30 dancers, “The Nutcracker” production includes 193 students, she says. The show enables the students to become better dancers and see how the professionals prepare and perform.

Torija, who has personally performed in four productions of “The Nutcracker,” praises the Columbus production and how it connects to the audience. The students must be very detailed and dance to very high standards, she says.

“It takes a lot of  concentration,” Torija says. “It takes a lot of commitment and discipline andpassion to want to do.”

Read more articles by Diane Erwin.