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Local girl selected for lead in ‘Nutcracker’

Almost synonymous with the holiday season, the Pennsylvania Ballet is set to kick off its annual production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” Bringing a local flair to the production will be 10-year-old Jane Cohen, a Moorestown resident and student at Moorestown Upper Elementary School, who just last week was selected to play the lead role of Marie.

“We were floored,” father Greg Cohen said. “She’s very expressive and that role is for someone who can really connect.”

Greg said that his daughter began ballet at 3 years old, as she began taking classes at the Perkins Center for the Arts in Moorestown.

“We enrolled her into Perkins and she really took to dance,” Greg said. “She just really had a love for it.”

Yet, Greg said, after awhile, they began to look into other ballet schools, eventually enrolling Jane into the Barbara Sandonato School of Ballet.

Sandonato founded the school by the Pennsylvania Ballet’s first member in 1963, according to Pennsylvania Ballet’s website.

Greg said the school was one of the selected pre-professional dance schools, in which the Pennsylvania Ballet would audition for the production’s child cast.

Jane then made her debut in “The Nutcracker” for the first time at 8 years old. Greg explained the restriction was due to labor laws in Pennsylvania.

“That’s the youngest they’re allowed to perform,” Greg said.

In her first appearance in “The Nutcracker,” Jane played both an angel and a bunny, and played both an angel and a grandchild the year after.

Unlike past years, Greg said the audition process for the child cast had changed, following the opening of the Pennsylvania Ballet’s own school. What was once a daylong audition has now changed into a scouting period encompassing several weeks.

“It was a longer process, approximately four weeks,” Greg said.

Instead of hosting auditions from the select schools, Greg said the Pennsylvania Ballet now chooses from its own students, one of whom being Jane who joined the school since Sandonato closed her school when the Pennsylvania Ballet opened its own.

Greg explained that, at first, the school had sent home a notice, announcing it would be evaluating students for potential roles in “The Nutcracker” and later a tentative list of students being considered for roles in the production.

Originally Jane was being considered for three roles. Greg said it was only recently that they learned that Jane had landed the lead role as Marie.

Currently, Jane attends ballet school three times a week for an hour and a half per day on top of rehearsal, which also runs three days during the week.

Greg credited Jane’s determination for her accomplishments, as he explained that landing the part of Marie is something she had set her sights on long ago.

Back when Jane was only 6 years old, Greg had taken her to see “The Nutcracker” and through a friend was allowed to tour backstage with her. While backstage, Greg recalled Jane’s excitement as she climbed into the boat used during the show and how at such a young age, she expressed aspirations to play Marie from that day on.

“It was her trajectory,” Greg said. “When she sets her sight on something, she gets it.”

Now four years later, Jane’s aspirations remain the same.

“I’m excited about a lot of things, but mostly the boat,” Jane said.

Jane also added that she is excited to be in a lead role and be on stage alone for the first time.

“It’s different, because for the last two years, the other Maries are the ones I looked up to,” Jane said.

Jane added that while she doesn’t think she’ll ever teach ballet in the future, she would like to become a professional ballet dancer for a few years before eventually pursuing a career in astrophysics.

The Pennsylvania Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” will run from Saturday, Dec. 7 to Sunday, Dec. 29 at the Academy of Music, located on 240 S. Broad St. in Philadelphia. For a complete list of show times and ticket information, visit paballet.org/nutcracker2013.