Vermont Teen Stars in Lebanon Holiday Ballet
Theo Pilette, 13, dances as the Nutcracker Prince in a rehearsal of Clara’s Dream this week at the Lebanon Opera House. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Theo Pilette stretches his feet before rehearsal begins for Clara’s Dream at the Lebanon Opera House. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Theo Pilette helps Luke Jacobs of Woodstock into the mouse king costume before rehearsal. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)
Suited in a crimson Nutcracker Prince jacket and white pants, Theo Pilette held his body upright and jumped up and down on the Lebanon Opera House stage, burning off excess energy as Wednesday night’s rehearsal of Clara’s Dream was set to begin.
Soon after, Theo, who is 13 and just a lick shy of 5 feet tall, danced with precision and grace as he fought nefarious mice.
He plays the Nutcracker Prince in a Dec. 8 production at the Lebanon Opera House of Clara’s Dream, an adapted version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. In playing the doll who comes to life and escorts young Clara to the Land of the Sweets, Pilette is stepping into a major role usually reserved for an older, and taller, dancer.
But what the Grafton, Vt., resident brings to the role is youthful zest and a mastery of the difficult dance steps.
With Becky Dore, 12, of Grantham, who plays the title character in Clara’s Dream, staged annually by Lebanon’s City Center Ballet company, Theo shows a childlike awe upon entering the Land of the Sweets, yet both dance with skill that comes from experience.
Each has been dancing for around 10 years — nearly all their lives, at this point.
“I feel fortunate that we’ve been able to offer these roles to these young people, that it was even an option,” said Jennifer Henderson, City Center Ballet’s resident choreographer.
Becky was surprised she won the role of Clara. “My jaw dropped,” she said of the moment when she learned she’d been cast. But it’s less common for a boy of Theo’s age to step into the boots (or black ballet slippers) of the Nutcracker Prince. He was as surprised as anyone when he was told in May that he’d be wearing the crimson Nutcracker’s coat.
“When I was younger, I never thought I would get to be it until I was a professional dancer,” he said.
Larger ballet companies, with more male dancers than the handful that are part of City Center Ballet, sometimes “will use a young prince, but the older gentlemen within the companies do most of the dancing,” Henderson explained. “Now that Theo has grown in his technical training and in inches, it made sense to go in that direction.”
The Nutcracker Prince will not be Theo’s only starring role, in the view of Linda Copp, City Center Ballet’s artistic director. That’s due in large part to the work ethic he’s shown during his years as a ballet student.
“He comes into the studio, he comes in to work and be the very best he can. He wants to excel. He really is, in my opinion and many others who watch him, an artist in the making,” Copp said.
In casting him as the Nutcracker Prince and Becky as Clara, “we just felt the chemistry between Becky and Theo was going to be quite special,” Copp said.
Theo has traveled far to get to this role. With his twin sister Lydia, who’s dancing as an angel and a soldier in this year’s Clara’s Dream, Theo was adopted from Vietnam when he was 8 months old. Growing up in Grafton, Vt., Theo and Lydia were enrolled in a children’s ballet class near their home. Anna Pilette saw it as a chance for her children to explore movement, and to harness their toddler energy.
“Well, they turned out to be show people at a very early age,” Pilette said, with an exasperated laugh.
And even though he was outnumbered by the young girls in his class, Theo Pilette said there were advantages to being a young male ballet dancer. “Seeing as there were only two boys, it meant the boys got a lot more attention.”
After seeing the City Center Ballet’s Cinderella and being “dazzled by how beautifully done it was,” his mother decided that the 100-mile roundrip to Lebanon was worth it to enroll her children at the Lebanon Ballet School, where they take classes several days a week.
Being a member of a ballet company is a big enough commitment, even without the commute that Theo and Lydia, who are homeschooled, make to be a part of City Center Ballet. “Your friends think you’re crazy,” Theo said.
It’s a commitment that leaves little time for other activities that fill a 13-year-old’s calendar, like basketball, soccer or Cub Scouts. But, “I have personally never found any of those things actually fun,” Theo said. “In basketball, I’ve never, ever scored a hoop.” Instead, he’s focused his energy on working his way up in the City Center Ballet.
Like Becky, he’s appeared in the last two productions of Clara’s Dream, now in its third year at the opera house. They each performed as members of the pastry chef company, who cook up the sweet creations that come alive for Clara and the Nutcracker Prince.
Part of what Theo appreciates about the prince role is that it’s a chance to shine in a solo part.
“It’s a unique role. It’s not a corps de ballet,” he said, using the term that describes those dancers who don’t solo.
After a few years of dancing side-by-side, Theo and Becky have an easygoing, sibling-like rapport. They experience few of the awkward pauses and giggles that often erupt between pre-teen boys and girls. And if Theo’s words are any indication, they hold one another in high esteem.
“It’s a lot of fun to be onstage with Becky,” he said.
Katie Beth Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.