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Annual tradition of The Nutcracker returns to Gainesville
The Gainesville Ballet performs "The Nutcracker" this weekend at Pearce Auditorium at Brenau.

‘The Nutcracker'

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Pearce Auditorium, Brenau University, 500 Washington St., Gainesville
How much: $16-$24 adults, $12-$20 seniors 55 and older, $10-$16 children younger than 18
More info: 770-532-4241

This year's production of "The Nutcracker" features something that hasn't been a part of the ballet for about a decade: A sugarplum fairy who is still in high school.

Typically a spot reserved for one of the few select professional dancers of the troupe, this year's "Nutcracker" will star 17-year-old Hannah Patten, a student at North Hall High School.

Performances start Friday and continue through Sunday at Pearce Auditorium at Brenau University in Gainesville.

For Patten, the experience is a bit surreal, having literally grown up watching the characters of "The Nutcracker" — especially the sugarplum fairy - for as long as she can remember.

Patten started classes at Gainesville Ballet when she was 3.

"I've always grown up watching them and thinking they're great," she said. "I've always watched them."

To prepare for the role, Patten said she's been studying the movements of other ballerinas in the same role.

"I watched a lot of videos of other sugarplums to get ideas of how I'm supposed to move and dance," she said, adding that she'll also be wearing a custom tutu for the role.

But fellow dancer McCree O'Kelley, a master's degree candidate in dance at the University of South Carolina, said Patten is suited for the starring role.

O'Kelley is one of two male professional dancers in the production, and as Cavalier, he's Patten's counterpart in the show.

"She's super talented," said O'Kelley, who has danced professionally for nine years, including stints with the Atlanta Ballet Company, the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, plus dancing in Tokyo.

"I think the best thing I can offer is some comfort and security for her to be able to relax into it," he said. "We do this all the time as professional dancers, to come into a situation and have a couple rehearsals and do it. But to not have your partner there all the time is another element; but she's handled it extremely well."

Because he's studying in South Carolina, O'Kelley said he's only had a couple of chances to practice with the Gainesville Ballet Company dancers. But luckily "The Nutcracker" is something that's been a part of his life "for as long as I can remember" and that makes it easy to come into a new production and slip right into a role.

O'Kelley said he went back to school after establishing himself as a professional dancer in order to get qualified to teach at the university level. This experience with Gainesville Ballet has allowed him to both dance and teach.

And "The Nutcracker," he said, is an essential part of the Christmas season.

"For me, growing up, it's been a tradition," he said. "So I think it's just a holiday tradition for a lot of people. I think it's magical."