The first time Gillian Murphy danced the Sugar Plum Fairy, she was a high school freshman at the North Carolina School of the Arts.
Since then, she has performed it many times with the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre—where she is principal dancer—and in guestings around the country.
In Tchaikovsky’s beloved “Nutcracker” ballet, the Sugar Plum Fairy rules the Land of the Sweets.
“I’ve always loved dancing it because the music and the role are so uplifting and iconic,” Murphy said.
This year, she’ll have a special treat. Murphy will perform the role with the Pennsylvania Regional Ballet for the first time with her frequent partner, ABT principal James Whiteside. But also, for the first time, she’ll be on stage with her niece, Allegra Inch.
The 12-year-old is a student at PRB, based in Enola.
“It will be so special to share the stage with her and watch from backstage as she dances as a soldier in the battle scene and leading a divertissement in Act II,” said Murphy.
PRB is “thrilled” to have Murphy, “one of the best-known ballet dancers in the country,” said Kathryn Aumiller, executive director. “It’s really a family affair, because Allegra’s mother, Erin Stiefel Inch, is a teacher in the school.”
Allegra calls the experience “an enormous honor.”
“Having my mom as one of the teachers and Gillian as the Sugar Plum Fairy is so special and will be an incredible memory,” she said. “I think it really sums up how we feel as dancers about Pennsylvania Regional Ballet. We are a family.”
That feeling is one consciously cultivated by PRB Artistic Director Sandra Carlino.
Aside from providing professional dance training for students ages 3 to 18 and nurturing individual artistic quality and versatility, PRB is “known for the faculty’s dedication to the emotional and physical well-being of the students,” Carlino said.
Alumni are currently attending university dance programs, performing with professional companies, choreographing, teaching and serving as artistic directors internationally.
One of those alumni who remembers PRB fondly is Kristen Weiser, director of ballet at Columbia (Mo.) Performing Arts Centre.
Weiser was only about 11 when she realized she was more interested in contemporary dance than classical ballet. She had enrolled in the Cumberland Dance Company—as PRB was then known—at 6 years old.
“Sandy did a piece that appealed to me,” said Weiser, who went on to the famous Juilliard School. “It was en pointe (on toe shoes) but neoclassical, and I fell in love with it. She was the best teacher.”
At the time, PRB was the only area company that taught modern dance and contemporary ballet, as well as classical. It also offers tap and jazz for musical theater.
Carlino, a former dancer with New York’s Joffrey Ballet, came to central Pennsylvania in 1987 and was appointed ballet mistress and rehearsal director of Cumberland Dance Company.
In 2001, she became artistic director, but considers the origin of PRB to be the earlier date. A few years later, the school hosted the conference of Regional Dance America, a national association of dance companies.
Carlino started with 45 students. That number now fluctuates between 125 and 130.
After performing in a church for 15 years, PRB purchased a former florist shop in Enola.
“We had two months, between the time we bought it and classes were going to start, to get it ready,” she said. “We completely gutted it and turned it into a ballet school.”
The family atmosphere has attracted staff as well.
Jeffrey Gribler has been freelance teaching and choreographing at PRB regularly. A former principal dancer with the Pennsylvania Ballet and later its ballet master, he is now part of the school’s faculty for the 2017-18 season.
“PRB is a second home to me,” he said. “The atmosphere is so positive and so headed in the right direction. The kids get better all the time. I love the quality of the work.”
Gribler met Carlino as an adjudicator for Regional Dance America and considers her “family.”
A few weeks before the “Nutcracker” performances, PRB will host the family-oriented “Enchanted Nutcracker Tea.”
“This is our fourth year for the tea, which is nice for our kids and their parents,” said Aumiller. “It includes a child-friendly luncheon, narrative preview from the ‘Nutcracker’ production, and autograph signings and photo opportunities with the major characters.”
Everyone in the local dance world knows Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet in Carlisle for its rigorous training and quality performances. But Carlino is unperturbed.
“In all fairness, CPYB is one of a kind,” she said. “You can’t imitate it.”
But she pursued a different model, inspired by the “kind of trendy classical ballet and neoclassical pointe work” at the Vineland (N.J.) Regional Dance Company.
“I thought to myself—these are our bodies; this is what we should try to go after,” she said. “Some of our dancers won’t be ballet dancers. Some may pursue Broadway careers. We found a way to balance good training with flexibility.”
For pre-professional students, who have daily classes and rehearsals and may not get to eat with busy working parents, Carlino said, “Everyone cares. It is a family thing.”
The Pennsylvania Regional Ballet will perform “The Nutcracker” on Dec. 2 at 1 and 5 p.m. and Dec. 3 at 2 p.m., at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 2701 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit www.prballet.org or call 717-732-2172.
The “Enchanted Nutcracker Tea” takes place Sunday, Nov. 12, at the West Shore Country Club, 100 Brentwater Road, Camp Hill.