By Ginny Cooper
For Frances Rooney, dancing the part of Clara in the Nutcracker is a dream come true.
The Spring Valley School sixth-grader said she remembers every detail about the day she learned she’d gotten the part in the Alabama Youth Ballet Company’s presentation of the holiday classic in December.
Frances said she was at her family’s lake house in July when her mother, Beth Rooney of Mountain Brook, called to tell her the good news.
“I started squealing,” Frances said.
Beth said the whole family started screaming in joy for 12-year-old Frances, who’s been dancing since the age of 9.
“We were all so happy,” Beth said.
Frances isn’t the only one in the family dancing in the ballet. Her mother and paternal grandmother, Janet Rooney of Mountain Brook, will join her onstage.
The dancers said their family dynamic is preserved in their roles in the ballet.
“I’m Clara’s mother. I’m her mother onstage and offstage,” Beth said. “And her grandmother is the nanny, which is the grandmother role, kind of.”
Janet said she began studying dance in her late 20s under the instruction of Birmingham ballerina Laura Toffel Knox, who danced as prima ballerina at a company in Puerto Rico and founded the first racially integrated dance company in Birmingham.
Janet’s role in “The Nutcracker,” however, doesn’t call for much dancing.
“I’ve danced for a long time, but this is a character role,” Janet said. “The nanny does get to dance with Drosselmeyer in the end though, which is very thrilling.”
Beth said she knows the Nutcracker well and has danced almost every role in the ballet.
“I was a party mother, and then I was Clara’s mother last year and this year. Before, when I was younger, I was in ‘The Nutcracker’ for nine years. One year I was Clara, but I was taken out of the role because I was too tall,” she said.
Her favorite part of this production, Beth said, is seeing Frances dance her dream role.
“I love to watch her,” she said. “I just cry sometimes, it’s so wonderful.”
Beth said her daughter grew up dreaming of dancing in the role of Clara in the holiday classic.
“Frances has always loved ‘The Nutcracker’ and always wanted to be Clara,” Beth said. “When she was little, she would watch the George Balanchine version of ‘The Nutcracker’ and knew it by heart. We had a Nutcracker birthday for her when she turned 4, and it was a big event.”
Alabama Ballet dancers performed parts of the second act of the ballet at Frances’ party, which was featured in Southern Baby magazine, Beth said.
“Yes, it was huge,” Janet said, laughing.
Though the Rooneys always attend the Alabama Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker,” they said they are happy to be involved in the Alabama Youth Ballet Company’s version, which has several unique aspects.
“It’s more community-based,” Janet said. “They involve the community throughout the whole first scene. A city official dances the role of Mother Ginger, and the maid is actually the treasurer of the Ballet Guild.”
The ongoing tradition of Mother Ginger is an important aspect of the production of “The Nutcracker” and is representative of the studio’s community mindset, Janet said.
Mother Ginger, a role traditionally played by a man dressed as a woman, is a character in the second act whose children emerge from under her enormous skirt to dance.
Grebel Studio recruits a prominent member of the community to play the part each year.
“Every year there is a Mother Ginger Club,” Beth said. “They go to the city council meeting in Pelham, and they put the wig behind someone’s chair. Some years, it’s the fire chief, some years, it’s the mayor. There’s a little club and all of the past Mother Gingers come every year. It’s just fun. It’s a tradition.”
This year, Pelham City Councilman Ron Scott will play the role of Mother Ginger.
The Grebel version of “The Nutcracker” also has unique choreography, said Deborah Grebel, executive director of Grebel Center for Dance.
Stevan Grebel choreographed the ballet after the style of Marius Petipa, who originally set the Tchaikovsky music to ballet in the 1890s. Grebel first presented his version of “The Nutcracker” in 1970 at Boutwell Auditorium, then from 1973-82 at the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex with the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.
This year will mark the eighth annual performance of “The Nutcracker” featuring the Alabama Youth Ballet Company at Pelham High School.
Beth said it’s a smaller, more intimate version of the ballet.
“The kids have a lot more opportunity to perform,” she said.
Frances said she’s enjoying the whole process of being a part of “The Nutcracker” this year, including rehearsals.
“The rehearsals are fun, because when I’m rehearsing I get to have all of my friends with me,” Frances said. “My friends at school are school friends, but my real friends are right here at Grebel.”
Beth said many of the dancers at Grebel get together outside of the studio to do fun activities together.
“We’re all just like a family,” Frances said.