Bojan Spassoff, head of the ballet's school, who directed the holiday battalion, stresses to the children and their parents how much dedication is required. "I always tell the kids that this is similar to doing a broadway show like 'Les Miserables,' and we need people who can deliver this big professional production. This is not the school recital and they must be willing to participate accordingly."
"Nutcracker" veteran Juliette Coche, 13, dances the lead role of the heroine Marie for the second year. (Alternating in the role is Gabrielle Snyder.) Over the last five years, Juliette has performed as Fritz (Marie's brother), an angel, a bunny soldier and a polichinelle (one of the little dancers who run out from under Mother Ginger's skirts.)
Juliette likes her current role best. "It's fun to be on stage that much. You get more of a feeling for the story, rather than the ballet." Her favorite part of the show is when the Christmas tree grows, and "no, never" has she had stagefright.
Her mother, clinical psychologist Judith Coche, is one of the many parents who make the children's participation possible by chaperoning backstage, car- pooling and generally being willing to help where necesssary. The show has become so paramount in their life that "nutcracker" has become a verb, as in ''We are nutcrackering this month" or "I am nutcrackered."
"The payoff for me," Coche says, "is to see the tremendous gift this experience is to my daughter. The poise she has gotten, the sense of herself as a person more than justify the hours put into it."
Spassoff echoes these comments. "The wonder of it all is timeless for the kids. Part of it is the romance of the past and the joyousness of the music, but ultimately each performance is really magic for them." And for their audience.
THE NUTCRACKER, by the Pennsylvania Ballet. Academy of Music, Broad and Locust streets. Performances through Dec. 31. Tickets: $11-$56. Info: 893-1999.