Marie is considered a children’s role in most Nutcrackers today, but Barbara Sandonato was already a professional dancer when she danced the role in the Pennsylvania Ballet’s first production, in December 1968 at the Academy of Music. The ballet opens its 50th anniversary Friday.

Back then, the child lead’s role was non-dancing in the first act. Then, in the second act, the grownup and dancing Marie (or Clara, as she was then known) emerged and went on to dance the pas de deux as the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Nutcracker Prince -- who happened to be Sandonato’s husband, Alexei Yudenich.

So, yes, Sandonato also has the distinction of having been Philadelphia’s first Sugar Plum Fairy.

Pennsylvania Ballet founder Barbara Weisberger had been George Balanchine’s student, and her young Philadelphia company was the first the great choreographer allowed to perform his version, after his own New York City Ballet.

And though it was a great honor, Sandonato says that five-day Philadelphia production definitely had its challenges.

“The costumes were beautiful, but you couldn’t raise your arm or do arabesques,” says Sandonato, now 75, "because they weren’t for dancers.” They’d been created by an opera designer, Jose Verona.

The first act was staged more as a play than a dance, and Argentinean theater director Osvaldo Riofrancos, who oversaw that portion, originally had Clara and the Prince sitting on stage, watching the dancing candy.

“We can’t sit there for 25 minutes and then dance the pas de deux," Sandonato says she told him. The theater director hadn’t considered stiff muscles or time for warming up.

The snow scene from Pennsylvania Ballet's first "Nutcracker," in 1968.
The snow scene from Pennsylvania Ballet's first "Nutcracker," in 1968.

The snow scene was choreographed by Robert Rodham, who had been Weisberger’s student and a New York City Ballet dancer. It had Plexiglas stalagmites hanging from the rafters, a Plexiglas tree, and snowflakes so large that in one performance, Yudenich aspirated one.

Another time, one of the stalagmites fell. “Thank God they didn’t fall on a person,” Sandonato says. “We had a lot of learning experiences.”

A production finds its footing

Today, there are countless Nutcracker productions at Christmastime, but back then very few Nutcrackers were being performed -- Balanchine choreographed his version in 1954 -- so there were fewer expectations of how it should play out.

Sandonato was the first dancer Weisberger hired for the Pennsylvania Ballet, in 1963, and the first she promoted to principal dancer. She had danced in the early years of City Ballet’s Nutcracker when she was a student at the School of American Ballet.

That 1968 Nutcracker was the Philadelphia company’s first full-length ballet, and Weisberger opted to use only Balanchine’s second act, with the theatrical first act and the Rodham snow scene to set things up.

“I adored most of Balanchine’s second act,” says Weisberger, now 92. “But the first act I felt was corny and had gotten hackneyed. I really wanted to make it an interesting and fun story. I wanted to clarify some things that had always bothered me.”

For example, the two acts have little to do with each other, even in most of today’s productions. “What in the Dickens is this?” Weisberger recalls thinking. The theatrical opening had been her solution to the continuity problem.

“I thought it helped a great deal,” Weisberger says. “We made it into more of a play rather than a ballet.”

Balanchine was with fine with her approach. “If he trusted you," he didn’t mind changes, Weisberger says. "He was not an egotist. Not at all. Or at least he didn’t show it.”

“He came down and rehearsed me as Sugar Plum,” Sandonato recalls. “He took a long time with the musicality. He took great pains with that part of the production. His faith in us was so remarkable.”

Another Barbara looks back

A third Barbara, Barbara Vogdes, was also there in the beginning. Now the ballet’s director of special programs, she had one of the few children’s roles that first year, as a hoop — or candy cane — in Act Two. A student at the Pennsylvania Ballet School, she had seen the New York City Ballet dance Nutcracker on TV and was eager to perform it.

Barbara Vogdes (second from left), now the director of special projects at Pennsylvania Ballet, was a child dancing the role of a hoop, or candy cane, when the company first danced "Nutcracker" in 1968.
Pennsylvania Ballet
Barbara Vogdes (second from left), now the director of special projects at Pennsylvania Ballet, was a child dancing the role of a hoop, or candy cane, when the company first danced "Nutcracker" in 1968.

There was the “thrill of being in the first production,” says Vogdes, who later danced with the Pennsylvania Ballet, as well as with other companies in Europe and New York. “I do remember getting paid $3 a performance. Some years, when we didn’t have a lot of money, we got a book or a poster.”

She also remembers her costume. “[The hoops] were dressed as Raggedy Ann dolls: white face with big black eyes with eyelashes painted on, Kewpi mouths, red dots on the cheeks, ridiculous straw hair sticking out of hat,” Vogdes says. “We had a black velvet tutu, and striped Raggedy Ann legs, but black and orange.”

As the years went on and the artistic directorship changed hands, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker was altered. The child lead was given more dancing to do. In 1987, then-director Robert Weiss converted the entire ballet to the Balanchine version.

Ashley LaMent (now Ashley Rose) danced the role of Marie the year before the all-Balanchine version of "Nutcracker" was introduced and again the first year of the all-Balanchine version. This is from 1986, the last year of the old version. From left: Rachel Damico, Jessica Gattinella, Ashley LaMent, and Gina Sole.
Ashley LaMent (now Ashley Rose) danced the role of Marie the year before the all-Balanchine version of "Nutcracker" was introduced and again the first year of the all-Balanchine version. This is from 1986, the last year of the old version. From left: Rachel Damico, Jessica Gattinella, Ashley LaMent, and Gina Sole.

Another 'first Marie’

Ashley Rose, now a stay-at-home mom in New York City, was the last Clara, in 1986, and the first Marie in the 1987 Balanchine version.

“It gave me a ton of self-confidence,” says Rose, who was Ashley LaMent when she danced the role. “I peaked at like 12. It felt like the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. It marks you and makes you feel strong and confident and part of something bigger than yourself.”

“Everything was new that year. They made the costumes for us," Rose says. "I remember the excitement, sets, everything. And David Richardson [who had been the children’s ballet master at New York City Ballet] came down from New York. He had a different demeanor than we were used to. He was clearly in charge, and that was very new.”

Also new were many of the nuances, including hair and costumes. “Mr. Richardson didn’t want us wearing tights, which was new. [In 1986], we had all worn tight ringlets. He wanted our hair to be less done.”

But Rose desperately wanted curly hair. “I went ahead and got a perm in the middle [of the rehearsal period], which he was not thrilled about.”

Through Dec. 31, Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad St., $35-$154, 215-893-1999, paballet.org