December 10, 2009


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Hill area kids have major roles in Pa. Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’

Stephanie Bandura, 11, of Mt. Airy, will perform the leading children’s role of “Marie” in the PA Ballet version of “The Nutcracker.” Her brother “Fritz” will be played by Juan Rafael Castellanos, of Chestnut Hill. Other local children in the performance include Annie Bloc, of Chestnut Hill, and Esperanza Badeau and Meredith Stitt-Johnston, of Mt. Airy.

The Pennsylvania Ballet will present its nationally acclaimed production of “The Nutcracker” in the Academy of Music on Dec. 12 through 31. The series of afternoon and evening performances in Philadelphia follow the company’s first performances of the Tchaikovsky/Balanchine holiday favorite in the Opera House of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

In a startling coup local dancers and supporters of ballet, both of the major children’s roles in “The Nutcracker” — Marie and Fritz — will be danced by local youngsters. Eleven-year-old Stephanie Bandura of West Mt. Airy will dance the part of Marie, the young girl who receives the gift of a nutcracker and then dreams of a dramatic battle with the fiendish Mouse King followed by a magical journey to the Land of the Sweets. Nine-year-old Juan Rafael Castellanos of Chestnut Hill will perform the part of Fritz, the nephew of the mysterious Drosselmeyer. It’s Fritz who becomes Marie’s prince by defeating the Mouse King and then escorting her on her voyage.

Stephanie, a student at  the Springside School in Chestnut Hill, has been dancing ballet for nine years. Juan Rafael’s career has been a tad more varied.

“I have been taking all kinds of dance classes since I was two years old,” he explained. “I started taking classes in Dublin, Ireland, with my mother, who is a dancer. We moved to Chestnut Hill when I was four, and I continued to take tap and ballet at various studios. So I have been dancing ballet for about six years.”

“I study at the Rock School (of Dance in center city), and I study with several of the teachers there,” Stephanie said. “But my main teachers are Gabriele Guma and Eva Szabo.”

Juan Rafael explained that he is “a student at the Metropolitan Ballet Academy under the direction of Lisa Collins Vidnovic (a former dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet). I am a second year student in their Boys Scholarship program, and my teacher is William DeGregory.” DeGregory is one of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s most admired and beloved former ballet dancers. He directs the company’s Ballet II for apprentices and is married to Tamara Hadley, one of the troupe’s two balletmasters and an equally admired and loved former dancer with the company.

While these performances of “The Nutcracker” will see Juan Rafael’s debut with the company, they will mark Stephanie’s fourth time dancing the holiday classic and her second appearance with the Pennsylvania Ballet, which has its studios in nearby East Falls. Her first was in its mounting of “Cinderella.”

Juan Rafael, however, is no novice to performances at important venues. The third-grader at Chestnut Hill Academy has danced in performances at Chestnut Hill College and in the Metropolitan Ballet’s production of “Hansel and Gretel.”

“It was awesome,” he recalled.

Both Stephanie and Juan Rafael acknowledged the inherent difficulties dancing with a professional ballet company in complex choreography and presented in so historic a venue as the Academy of Music. For Stephanie, “The hardest part of dancing my role is just not being nervous.” For Juan Rafael, “I think the hardest part is trying not to make many mistakes. Trying to stay in step and remember all the directions Mr. Gribler gives me.” The “Mr. Gribler” in question is Jeffrey Gribler of West Mt. Airy, another fabled former dancer with the company and now it’s other balletmaster.

But there are many plusses, as well. “I like going to rehearsals and dancing with my friends from Mr. DeGregory’s boys’ class,” Juan Rafael said. “Sometimes there are not enough boys around to dance all the male roles and girls sometimes have to be boys. But I am lucky. I get to dance with my friends and the big boys from the company.”

Stephanie’s favorite aspects of dancing in “The Nutcracker” are remarkably similar. “What I like most about ‘The Nutcracker’ is that you get to make so many friends. And performing is so much fun.”

Both young dancers are also considering ballet as a profession. “I do want to be a ballet dancer when I grow  up,” Stephanie assured. “It is my life, and I can’t imagine life without it.”

Juan Rafael agrees. “I would like to continue dancing — it’s great exercise. I like ballet because it’s tough and creative. I would also like to be a quarterback for the New England Patriots. I heard that football players study ballet, too.”

For ticket information, call 215-893-1955 or visit


Alan Harler will lead the Mendelssohn Club in its 21st annual Christmas concert in St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Chestnut Hill, Saturday, Dec. 12, 4 and 8 p.m. The program is entitled “Sounds American” and will highlight holiday music composed by Americans.

Harler, who has led the Mendelssohn Club chorus since the 1988-89 season, explained that the choir’s program would span the ages from the early colonial period to the present day. “We’ll be singing ‘Jesus He is Born,’ the very first Christmas carol composed in North America by a Jesuit father in the language of the Huron Indians so that they readily understand the story of Jesus’ birth. The text is not only in the Huron language — and we’ll be singing it both in Huron and English —  but it uses their own familiar idioms so that the story strikes home for them.”

Rounding out the program will be Donald St. Pierre’s original setting of the famous poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” originally entitled “A  Visit from St. Nicholas.”

For ticket information, call 215-893-1999 or visit


For neither the first nor the last time this season, the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra was occupied by yet another young guest conductor who was either making his debut with the ensemble or was returning for     only the first time since that debut. This time around it was Yannick Nezet-Seguin. Actually making his official debut with the Philadelphians was Saturday night’s soloist, Nicholas Angelich. The American-born pianist was heard in Johannes Brahms’ “Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor,” Opus 15. Nezet-Seguin opened the concert with the orchestra’s first performance of “Orion” by Claude Vivier and closed it with Cesar Franck’s “Symphony in D minor.”

Nezet-Seguin and Angelich’s slow tempi in the first and second movements of the Concerto were puzzling. Although it was composed in the middle of the romantic 19th century, it remains (like all of Brahms’ music) solidly placed in the classicism of the 18th century. It’s basically an expanded version of a Beethoven piano concerto in which structure and development are far more important than melody and orchestration. Employing a heavy-handed rubato during which the pace gets slower and slower to emphasize this or that individual note in a phrase _ as Angelich initiated and Nezet-Seguin followed — resulted in the breaking of the arch of countless phrases and the unhinging of form. It wasn’t so much an interpretation as a distortion of the music. Only the third movement escaped unscathed.


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