When her young dancers are asked who wants to be a rat, a chorus of little girl voices cries out, "Oh, me, me, me!" recounts Eleanor Viecelli Tornblom.
She is owner of Laurel Ballet, which with the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra will present "The Nutcracker Ballet" in December at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg.
"They want to be the one who dies onstage. It's a fun thing," explained Ms. Tornblom, who founded a dance studio in 1957 that she renamed Laurel Youth Ballet Theatre in 1974. She has seen her share of "Nutcrackers," and this year will celebrate Laurel Ballet's 20th anniversary performance with the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra. Walter Morales will guest conduct.
One might think that such excitement would be reserved for the part of Clara, the child who receives the nutcracker as a Christmas gift. But, Ms. Tornblom, said, "Every single part is coveted. If I want somebody to sneeze, 100 hands go up."
Hannah Barkley Matalski will be Clara in the Saturday matinee performance, Christy Nale on Saturday evening and Sydney Papinchek on Sunday. Why three Claras?
"For the single reason that they grow through those parts," said Ms. Tornblom, and she wants to spread out the opportunity.
"The next time, they're ready for something bigger and better. It's a dream of theirs to be Clara. For a young girl it's their Black Swan. Many have seen it year after year after year and dreamed of being in that part."
Close to 150 dancers will be onstage for next month's shows, a quintessential family holiday event.
"This is something that will surprise you whenever you see it," Ms. Tornblom said, adding that it's very popular and that the three annual performances are usually sold out.
"There are full sets. We have a costumer. The costumes aren't bought [from the racks], little skimpy things," Ms. Tornblom said.
The production is different every year, and one way it's kept fresh is by customizing the choreography. She has high praise for daughter Judy Rae Tubbs, who is company resident choreographer.
"Each year we have different girls with different strengths," Ms. Tornblom says. "She makes the choreography match their strengths."
Ms. Tubbs is also a Laurel Ballet teacher and partner with her sister Joy Uschak, the company manager and a teacher, and with Ms. Tornblom, who is artistic director and master teacher.
But the dancers are clearly the main attraction, and Ms. Tornblom's voice beams when she talks about them.
"These little ones, we're not looking for them to be cute. They have to be accomplished."
Ms. Tornblom emphasizes that's "not a quick thing." The girls who are dancing Clara began taking classes when they were 4 or 5 years old, and they are committed.
Her students are "drawn to the arts, people who are focused, concerned with quality and who are hard workers."
Ms. Tornblom, 76, an Irwin native, teaches the 6- to 8-year-olds.
"That's when I do all the technique. They get that firmly in hand and they can do anything with their bodies."
The rigorous schedule intensifies during rehearsal periods.
Under Ms. Tornblom's guidance, ballet is a discipline that extends beyond basic motion.
"I like making them beautiful. I like making them confident. I like making them complete," Ms. Tornblom said.
"I want to give everybody who comes in that door all the values that are in this art form. It's not an activity. It's an education."
"Nutcracker" performances will be given at 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 14 and 2 p.m. Dec. 15. Tickets may be purchased through the Palace Theatre at 724-836-8000 or www.thepalacetheatre.org.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1925.