All Grown Up, But the Donetsk Ballet’s Nutcracker is Still a Tradition for Two Philadelphia Sisters

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Coralie François, right; Vladislav Stepanov, Donetsk Ballet, center; and Hannah Kearney, left, in a pas de trois in The Nutcracker
Photo courtesy of Wissahickon Dance Academy

In their first Nutcracker, they were little dancing dolls come to life and in time, they were mice and toy soldiers.  Beginning with ballet lessons at the age of seven, sisters Michele-Oliva and Coralie François were among the children who danced annually with the world-class Donetsk Ballet when it performed The Nutcracker in Philadelphia as part of its US tour.

Becoming serious dance students as they entered their teens, they traded in their mouse suits for party dresses, and eventually graduated to tutus and pointe shoes.  The sisters earned coveted roles as snowflakes and then Clara, a demanding role on pointe for an ingénue.

Now, in 2015,  they are passing along their knowledge to a new generation of dolls, mice, party guests, toy soldiers, and snowflakes, weekly coaching 40 ballet students in the supporting roles they once won. Coralie, 20, currently a pre-veterinary and dance major at Drexel University, and Michele-Olivia 23, a Drexel graduate who is headed for a career in physical therapy, are the répétiteurs for the children’s cast of  The Nutcracker, which the Donetsk Ballet will perform at Plymouth Meeting High School on December 19 and 20.

The sisters’ newest role in The Nutcracker  is a continuation of the unique relationship that the Donetsk Ballet has maintained for more than 20 years with dance studios in the five US cities where the company, led by Vadim Pisarev,  has performed.  The studios audition the children, who then rehearse for months in advance of the company’s arrival.  Each studio arranges for a répétiteur, who ensures that the youth cast is perfectly in step with the professionals, many of whom, like Irina Komarenko, have won prestigious international competitions. The Donetsk is also home to the Pisarev Choreographic School, whose graduates include past and current principal dancers in major European companies.

In Philadelphia, the Donetsk Ballet’s performances are presented by the International Ballet Exchange (IBE), which also arranges for the Donetsk Ballet to perform for an audience of more than 1,200 students from the Philadelphia public schools during its local run. Housed at the Wissahickon Dance Academy, the Germantown-based IBE holds an open audition for the youth cast each September.

When Viktor Yeliohin, the former Donetsk soloist, announced his retirement after last year’s run, Nancy Malmed, IBE’s executive director and founder of Wissahickon Dance Academy, knew exactly who to call on.

“Sharing the stage with such stellar professionals as the Donetsk means that the dancing and mime needs to be very, very clean. Michele-Olivia and Coralie know the parts inside and out, and they know the staging—all the entrances and exits, which they learned from Viktor. They know what steps are tricky, the costume changes, how the kids need to project, how to deal with stage nerves.”

Not only veterans of The Nutcracker, the sisters had also performed in IBE’s annual spring ballet for the Philadelphia school district and even on the Donetsk’s stage in Ukraine. In her senior year of high school, Coralie was featured in a pas de trois in The Nutcracker and performed the lead of Bess in IBE’s Porgy and Bess.  She also traveled with IBE to Cuba for an intensive program of study with the National Ballet of Cuba. Michele-Olivia is currently a member of Dance4Nia, a contemporary dance company.

Nancy Malmed is quick to add that “From their skills and experience as dancers and performers to their career goals, Michele-Olivia and Coralie are great role models for the younger students.”

The Donetsk Ballet with IBE’s local youth cast performs “The Nutcracker” on Saturday, December 19, at 6:30 p.m., and Sunday, December 20, at 2:00 p.m., at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School (201 E Germantown Pike, Plymouth Meeting). Tickets are $28 for adults/$20 for seniors and students, and parking is free. For tickets and more information about IBE, see www.internationalballet.org.