In 15 years with New England Ballet Ensemble, Gabrielle Rizzo has danced nearly every role in “The Nutcracker.”
“In kindergarten or first grade, my first part was as a little lamb in the marzipan dance,” said Rizzo, now an 18-year-old senior at Swampscott High.
Over the years, she also appeared as a baby mouse, “a party girl and a party boy,” a little angel, and a big angel.
Like many of the nearly 100 local students who will appear in the ensemble’s performance this weekend in Marblehead, Rizzo started dancing even before she went to school.
“I was probably 3 years old when I started dancing for them,” she said. “I remember my first dances and being excited at getting my first tutus.”
Rizzo was also delighted when, at 13, she got to dance the lead role of Clara.
“That was easily one of my most memorable dancing experiences,” she said. “It’s an acting role as much as it is a dancing role.”
Two dancers from Marblehead will appear as Clara this season — Jenny Minney, 12, and Michaela Bird, 13 — and they will take turns appearing in the ensemble’s two performances, on Saturday and Sunday. The girls are students at the two local dance studios that form the New England Ballet Ensemble and have joined forces during the last 20 years to stage a holiday performance.
Minney and Rizzo are students at A Performing Arts Academy in Salem, which is co-owned and directed by Susan Byrne and Seanna Chmura, while Bird dances at Miss Lisa’s Dance Studio Plus in Marblehead, directed by Lisa Moretti.
“We’ve done ‘The Nutcracker’ for 17 years,” Moretti said. “We also did ‘Rudolph’ one year, and ‘Buddy the Elf.’ But this year being our 20th anniversary, we wanted to do a classic.
“When we got together 20 years ago, Boston Ballet was the only one doing ‘The Nutcracker.’ We wanted to give the local dancer an opportunity to perform these wonderful roles on our local stage.”
The studios have been working since August on the production, which will include plenty of special effects.
“We have snow that falls, a tree that grows, fog at the beginning — it’s very magical,” Moretti said.
Moretti and Chmura “grew up together” dancing at Deane School of Dance, which was founded by Chmura’s grandmother, Helen Deane, in 1924, and which Chmura took over in 1989.
“Lisa came up with the idea” of collaborating on a holiday production, Chmura said. “We always did so much together, it was a natural choice for her to say, ‘Let’s do this together.’”
A choreographer from New York, Joe Istre, also contributes to the production, updating props and adapting routines to suit each cast of dancers.
The ensemble usually invites guest artists, including students from The Boston Conservatory and professional dancers from New York, for a few of the more demanding roles.
“The students love having some of the guest artists,” Chmura said. “They wouldn’t normally get to be in a production with professional dancers.”
But there are also several demanding parts that are danced by the most experienced members of the ensemble.
“When we were little, we called them ‘the big-girls’ dances,’” Rizzo said, and they include the angel princess and snow queen, both of which she has danced.
“This year, I’m the Dew Drop Fairy, which is the lead role for the ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ dance. It’s very flowing and balletic. I really like this dance. It’s the last dance before the professional dancer comes in and does the Sugar Plum Fairy. It’s at the end of the show, which I like.”
Rizzo defines dance, after all her years of training, as learning to express herself.
“You learn how to dance and not just do steps,” she said. “It’s in the way you carry yourself, the way you present yourself. You put feeling into it.”
Rizzo is applying to college and will miss the dancers she has worked with in the ensemble all these years, but she plans to continue dancing.
“It’s been such a major part in my life ever since I can remember,” she said. “It’s something I can’t even imagine not doing.”
If you go
What: “The Nutcracker” by New England Ballet Ensemble
When: Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m.
Where: Marblehead Veterans Middle School, Performing Arts Center, 217 Pleasant St.
Tickets: $20. Groups of 10 or more get 10 percent discount. Available at the door, online or by telephone.
More information and reservations: www.newenglandballetensemble.com, 978-744-8277 or 781-639-4424