Children of 'The Nutcracker' work for their moment in the Music Center spotlight

The tiny dancers — girls ages 7 to 14 — wear black and blue leotards with white tights and pale pink slippers that squeak softly on the rehearsal floor inside the Colburn School in downtown Los Angeles.

The floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the Swiss-cheese exterior of the Broad museum across the street. Looming a long block away is the Music Center’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where the children — 65 in all — will perform in Miami City Ballet’s new production of “The Nutcracker” beginning Thursday.

A dark-haired girl with large brown eyes, a serious smile and a light and lovely leap is among them. She is Emily Gonzalez, 10, and she is one of eight dancers to join the show from the Gabriella Foundation’s “everybody dance!” program, which provides low-cost dance instruction to children from inner-city schools.

“I felt talented when I did a dance,” Emily says while sitting in her black tutu with metallic stars, explaining why she wanted to dance when she was 4. “If I tried hard, I knew I would be good at it.”

For Emily and the other young dancers, the journey to the celebrated stage of the Dorothy Chandler marks a rite of passage that could change their lives, even if they don’t go on to become professional dancers. It’s why Music Center Chief Executive Rachel Moore chose to involve kids from the community in the production. Dancers from the Colburn School will appear alongside those from Gabriella, and the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus will sing in the storied ballet about a fantastical Christmas Eve where toys come to life and mice go to war with gingerbread soldiers.

“They’ve been working on this for a long time, this is very serious business for them,” Moore says of the children’s commitment, which for some began in June with an intensive two-week boot camp followed by formal auditions. Rehearsals started in early September and increased in frequency as fall rolled along. “They had to learn some very difficult steps and techniques; this isn’t just walking onstage and twirling around like bumblebees.”

Ballet mistress Jenifer Ringer, dean of the Trudi Zipper Dance Institute at the Colburn School, leads the team of instructors helping the children learn the complicated choreography by George Balanchine, giant of 20th century ballet and co-founder of New York City Ballet. Ringer is a former principal dancer of Balanchine’s company, and the George Balanchine Trust has sent its own representative to rehearsals to ensure adherence to the choreography.

Miami City Ballet has performed Balanchine’s beloved version of “The Nutcracker” for nearly 30 years, which is partially why Moore wanted to partner with the company in bringing the holiday show back to the Music Center after a five-year absence. Moore is going all-out: A live orchestra will perform Tchaikovsky’s score, and the sets and costumes are designed by Isabel and Ruben Toledo. Some may know Isabel as the designer behind the lemongrass lace coat and dress that Michelle Obama wore to her husband’s 2009 presidential inauguration.

“You don’t have to have a fake smile on your face. It needs to be genuine and from your heart,” Ringer tells her diminutive charges on the chaotic floor. “So don’t let your face go to sleep.”

She treats the dancers like professionals — setting her expectations high. She is gentle but firm, and unafraid to tell them when they need to put in extra effort.

“We’re going to work on this a lot more, ladies,” she says sternly when her youngest dancers have difficulty staying on count and in a single line. “We’re going to need to spend some real time on this again; you’ll need to practice at home with your parents before rehearsal on Saturday.”

Emily’s mother, Ana Escobar, waits patiently outside, along with Ana Romero, the mother of 11-year-old Amy Sierra. Both women have had to adjust busy work schedules to accommodate their daughters’ passion for dance — and the demands of this particular production.

“It’s really hard, but we have to do it for them,” says Romero, who works as a saleswoman. “It’s better to keep their minds busy with something — not only on the phone or tablet — so they grow healthy.”

Amy started dancing at 4 and says it’s her passion. She first saw “The Nutcracker” two years ago and thought it was amazing.

“I want to be there sometime,” she recalls thinking. “And now I’m finally here!”

Escobar is a janitor, and her husband is a handyman. She came from El Salvador in 2000, the same year he arrived from Guatemala. She says her daughter told her, “Mommy, I love ballet because I can express what I feel.” Escobar says the girl’s devotion to dance is “why I will be with her at every event.”

The only thing Escobar asks in return is that Emily keep her grades up, which she does.

“I am very, very blessed,” says Escobar, smiling shyly before admitting that Emily doesn’t get her dance skills from her mother. “I have two left feet.”

Tina Banchero, the artistic director of the Gabriella Foundation, stands nearby, surveying the rehearsal.

“They have a level of maturity you don’t see from average children their age,” she says of the Gabriella Foundation kids. “It comes from a commitment to this program, to their bodies and to the art form.”

That commitment is clear on the part of all the young dancers as they glide, twirl and leap across the dance floor, mouths set with determination, eyes on the horizon, arms held high and elegant.

“We’re so close to the end,” one of the ballet mistresses says by way of encouragement. “You get to go home and have milk and cookies.”

Just a few more tour jetes.

“Energy, energy, keep it up,” says Ringer.

A small voice pipes up as the clock strikes 6:30 p.m.

“Are we done?”

Yes, Ringer says, smiling, “For now.”

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘The Nutcracker’ by Miami City Ballet

Where: Glorya Kaufman Presents Dance at the Music Center, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, noon and 4 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $34 and up

Info: (213) 972-0711, www.musiccenter.org

jessica.gelt@latimes.com

@jessicagelt

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