Western New York is in for a treat this holiday season.
Clarence native Neil Haskell and Sabra Johnson, current winners from Fox network's "So You Think You Can Dance," will perform in the American Academy of Ballet's annual "Nutcracker" Saturday and Sunday at the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts along with 250 local dance students from 26 area studios.
Maris Battaglia, director of the American Academy of Ballet, has been putting on "The Nutcracker" for more than a decade and wanted to make this year's show even more exciting. "This would be a wonderful way to say thank you to Western New York for supporting them."
Haskell, 20, auditioned for the Chautauqua Institution School of Dance Ballet Program in high school. It was there that Battaglia recognized that she had a star in the making. "There was something charismatic about him," she said.
Haskell began attending classes at the academy in addition to his classes at David DeMarie Dance Studio in Clarence, where he began dancing at the age of 5.
Battaglia cast Haskell as the prince in her "Nutcracker" three years ago, while he was a senior at Clarence High School. After graduating high school in 2005, he attended Point Park University in Pennsylvania to study dance. Then, Broadway called. He performed in Twyla Tharp's "The Times They Are A-Changin." When the show ended, Haskell stayed in New York City to pursue further dance opportunities. He auditioned for "So You Think You Can Dance" and it changed his life. He placed third overall in the competition this summer.
This fall, Haskell and the top 10 dancers on the show began touring the country, doing 48 performances in less than three months. Their last show will be in Reno, Nev., this Friday. "The Nutcracker" is the next day. How will he and Sabra make it? After they finish the last show, they will fly right to Buffalo. Because of the tight time frame, they will be unable to dance in the Saturday afternoon performance of "The Nutcracker," said Battaglia.
When asked why they wanted to be a part of this year's "Nutcracker," despite the travel difficulties, Haskell said the American Academy's "Nutcracker" is very special to him. "It's not the normal Balanchine Nutcracker; it's very unique. Maris uses a different take at it and explores more options. It makes it more fun." He is also looking forward to dancing with principal dancers Daniel Ulbricht from the New York City Ballet and Jeannette Delgado from Miami City Ballet.
Sabra has only been dancing for four years, and Battaglia said she was thrilled with the invitation to do the show here. "Sabra has never even seen 'The Nutcracker'," Battaglia said.
Haskell and Johnson will perform a couple of numbers in the Academy's "Nutcracker." They will dance the Paso Doble, one of the judges' favorite dance routines on the Fox show, as a part of the Spanish segment Battaglia added especially for them. They also will choreograph their own piece for the South American scene. They will be guests in the opening party scene for both Sunday performances.
Haskell is very excited about coming back home. He hasn't been back to Western New York since before the tour started. "Everyone is so supportive. I love just being in Buffalo," he said.
While on the "So You Think You Can Dance" tour, Haskell has made lifelong friendships. "They are a part of my life. They are all interesting and nice people; they are just fun to be around. They are very talented and have so much to give."
When asked what his favorite type of dance is, Haskell replied, "I love contemporary. You can move however you want and you can express yourself."
Haskell said he has grown more in dance through his experience on the show and on tour. He also enjoyed working with so many interesting and talented people. "My knowledge is now more diverse," he said.
On tour, young girls in the audience are known to scream in his presence. When asked about it, he responded, "It's really cool to perform for so many different people. It's cool knowing they are all there supporting the show and dance in general."
Among these adoring fans are teenagers and preteens from the American Academy of Ballet. Eva Alt, 13, of Transit Middle School, is very excited about Haskell performing in "The Nutcracker." "He's such a nice kid. I'm glad for him to be back after seeing him on the show. I'm so excited to be in the opening party scene with him!" Eva, along with Sydney Brason, will play the role of young Clara in the show. Academy students Marina Leontaritis and Michaela Gould will share the lead role of Princess Clara.
Alanna Sade-Milberg, 13, of Casey Middle School, can't wait to perform with Haskell and Sabra in "The Nutcracker." "It's an awesome opportunity for us to dance with these professionals who are so famous," she said.
Another Academy dancer who is anxiously awaiting Haskell's arrival is Barbara Stevens, 13, of Mill Middle School. "I'm uber-excited! I already told all my friends at least 20 times."
At the Academy's recent silent auction to benefit "The Nutcracker," one of the most sought-after items was a four-guest lunch with Haskell. "Everybody was outbidding each other for the lunch," Battaglia said.
Barbara was a lucky winner of the lunch along with Soultana Schiavi, 12, of St. Gregory The Great School. "I'm very excited. I've never gotten to speak to him before," Soultana said.
"I was in shock!" Barbara said. "When I found out, I started planning seating arrangements, questions, and the perfect outfit."
As the tour comes to a close and The Nutcracker ends, Haskell was asked where his career will go next. "There are a bunch of things that I'm hoping will work out. I just don't want to jinx anything."
Natalie Foster, a freshman at Williamsville East, will perform in the American Academy's production of the Nutcracker.
"The Nutcracker" will be performed at 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday at the UB Centre for the Arts. Tickets are $20 and $25 at the UB Box Office.