When American Repertory Ballet mounts its lavish production of the Nutcracker each year, the company braces itself for a certain number of injuries, sudden illnesses, and general backstage mayhem. Some 80 children and 20 professional dancers share tight quarters behind the scenes at the four theaters where the company stages the holiday classic — McCarter Theatre in Princeton, the Mayo Center for the Performing Arts in Morristown, Patriots Theater at the War Memorial in Trenton, and the State Theater in New Brunswick. A few well-rehearsed replacements are always at the ready.

But ARB was taken off guard by the run of mishaps, medical and otherwise, that have plagued some of this season’s performances. Between the flu, stomach troubles, even a case of lockjaw caused by an overenthusiastic yawn that sent one child to the emergency room, artistic director and choreographer Graham Lustig and other members of the staff have been hard pressed to ensure that the show goes on. An unusual number of last-minute substitutions have thrust a few students at the company’s Princeton Ballet School into the spotlight. And the company still has four performances to go: Saturday and Sunday, December 19 and 20, at the State Theater in New Brunswick.

“Was I nervous? A little smidge,” admits eight-year-old Candace Gely, who jumped into a role at McCarter on Sunday, November 29. Just after coming offstage in the Act I party scene, Gely was enlisted to dance the “Polichinelle” in Act II when the child cast in the role fell ill. Luckily, Gely had danced the part the year before. “They made me put on the costume, and practice a little bit,” she says. “I totally remembered it. And once I got out onto the stage, I was fine. I was really excited.”

Karen Leslie Moscato, 15, is a Nutcracker veteran of several years. A member of the school’s prestigious training program, she was cast this year to dance the important part of the young Marie as well as in the ensembles of the Snow Scene and the Waltz of the Flowers. This was her second year getting company roles and having a chance to appear alongside the professionals.

But Moscato had never performed the “German Dance” in Act II, a trio always performed by professional company members. On the same day that Candace Gely was stepping in for a sick colleague, Moscato was asked to substitute for an injured company member in “German” — an hour and a half before the performance.

“It’s not a student dance, so we never learned it at ballet school,” Moscato says. “So I had to learn it on the spot. Of course I have been growing up watching it and practicing it, like kids do. So it was somewhat in my mind. The challenges were the costume, and the spacing and all of that. But I’ve had such great training that has really taught me to pick up choreography fast, so that helped a lot.”

ARB dancer Peggy Petteway taught Moscato the dance, trimmed by Lustig for the last-minute substitution from a trio into a duet. “It went pretty smoothly,” Moscato says. “It was actually really fun. I was a little nervous at first, but everyone was really supportive so it became kind of a great experience.”

Lustig must have had a sixth sense, because he had mentioned the “German Dance” to Moscato earlier that day. “I said to Karen Leslie, ‘I think it’d be a really good idea for you to have a good look at German this afternoon.’ Sure enough, somebody got hurt,” he says. “We had an emergency rehearsal and she went on and did beautifully.”

Also among the dancers to step in for an injured colleague during this season’s “Nutcracker” run at McCarter was Jennifer Cavanaugh, who has been a member of ARB for 11 years. She has danced just about every female role in the ballet except for the Act II variation known as “Russian.”

“I have been in Nutcracker forever, and the funny thing is that I have done every female role except for the one I had to step into,” she says. “That’s what was crazy. I didn’t know it and had to learn it during a 15-minute rehearsal between shows.” The students dancing supporting roles in “Russian” helped Cavanaugh once they got on stage. “They looked out for me,” she says, laughing. “They made sure I didn’t run into them.”

During the McCarter shows, illnesses began to run rampant. “A few kids got sick in the bathroom right before one performance,” says Cavanaugh. “It all just spirals when one goes down and you’re at your limit.”

This season’s sick count was higher than usual. “We’ve had an extraordinary number of illnesses amongst the children,” says Lustig. “The flu and upset tummy you expect, but there were some unusual things this year, like the lockjaw. The cast list is a huge pyramid. You move one out of one role and into another, and the consequences are enormous.”

Ballet is among the most physically demanding of all art forms. Injury is commonplace among dancers. Try to find a professional dancer who has had a long career without spending at least a few months recuperating from some sort of sprain, break, or stress fracture. Only those blessed with extraordinary stamina and the right kind of physique are immune.

No one knows more about what goes on behind the scenes at the Nutcracker than Cindy Mahoney. Princeton Ballet School’s registrar the rest of the year, Mahoney becomes assistant stage manager during Nutcracker season. This one marks her 24th. “The unofficial title I love the most is ‘kid wrangler,’” says Mahoney. Her three children, all professional dancers today, got their training at the school and performed in the holiday ballet for years. “Mostly because we lived quite a distance away, traveling back and forth for the performances was hard,” Mahoney says. “So I started helping out backstage. And that morphed into coordinating the kids, and then to other positions here.”

Mahoney’s son, Sean, is today a member of the Paul Taylor Dance Company. His wife, Peggy Petteway, dances with ARB. Daughter Erin had great success with the Washington Ballet before becoming a mother. Mahoney’s other daughter, Sara, also dances professionally.

While Mahoney feels this year’s Nutcracker injuries and illnesses weren’t all that extraordinary, she does admit to some trying moments. “We hit the flu season at a bad time,” she says. “And when you get people together in a closed space backstage, it’s exciting and stressful and they get tired. It’s inevitable. And this did seem to happen all at once during those Sunday performances at McCarter.

“But we’ve had years in my past here when we had chicken pox wipe out an entire rodent population [the children in the ballet who dance the roles of mice]. There were no mice. We’ve had years of snowstorms when people couldn’t get to the theater. This year it was the stomach flu and the regular flu, though thankfully not swine flu. It started with ‘I don’t feel well.’ So then it was, ‘Let’s separate the child from the others and call the alternate.’ Then within 15 minutes, another child didn’t feel well. I think we had five all together between first and second show that day.”

What is important to Lustig is that the high standards he sets for ARB’s dancers and Princeton Ballet School students appearing in Nutcracker are maintained no matter what kind of disaster is brewing backstage. “The measure of an organization is how well you do under duress,” he says. “It’s so charming to see these young people stepping up to this responsibility. And the audience doesn’t know anything is wrong.”

Graham Lustig’s Nutcracker, State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Saturday and Sunday, December 19 and 20, 1 and 4:30 p.m. American Repertory Ballet with a live orchestra. $32 to $52. Dinners specials available at Eno Terra in Kingston and Christopher’s at the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick. 732-246-7469. www.StateTheatreNJ.org.

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