This year, on stages and in venues throughout the area, there will be angels earning their wings, mice and toy soldiers going to battle and ginger children emerging from the cover of their mother's hoop skirt to dance circles around her. And that is just part of the story.

It is once again time for "The Nutcracker," a ballet that features creatures large and small, fantastical and real, that all come together to tell the story of a young girl, Clara (Marie in some versions), who enjoys a magical evening, complete with drama and suspense. It begins with a holiday party and continues with her travels through a land of sweets and treats, alongside her nutcracker-turned-prince. It is there that she encounters snowflakes, flowers, a queen and a fairy or two. With music by Tchaikovsky, this ballet, which premiered more than 100 years ago, has become a holiday tradition for many families in the United States.

"So many of us have grown up watching it or being in it," said Christina Paolucci, co-director of the Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance, who recalled seeing her first "Nutcracker" in 1981. "It's been a part of my life for over 20 years in one way or another."

Although the marquee roles have their allure for the dancers, there is a progression of characters that afford young dancers a path to the top. The story requires dancers who can play the parts of party guests, toy dolls and pages. You need performers who can impart the flavor of sweets from around the world -- Spanish chocolate, Chinese tea, Arabian coffee, and Russian and Danish treats -- to Clara and her prince with only their nimble feet.

Between donning their wings to putting on a tutu to serve as the overseer of the land of treats, they can gain technical skills, poise and presence and make memories in the process.

Over the past 11 years, Emilie Kushner, a 17-year-old senior at New Canaan High School who will be playing Clara this year for the New England Academy of Dance and New England Dance Theater's production of "The Nutcracker," has amassed quite a resume. Those roles have included angel, mouse, little ginger girl, party guest, soldier, candy cane, a snowflake, a Chinese dancer and a Spanish dancer. She began dancing at the academy at age 3.

More Information

'Nutcracker' on stage Ballet Etudes Company: Westport Country Playhouse, 25 Powers Court, Westport. Saturday, Dec. 8, 1 and 4 p.m. $35. 203-227-4177, New England Ballet Company: Klein Memorial Auditorium, 910 Fairfield Ave., Bridgeport. Saturday, Dec. 15, 2 p.m., $22-$48. 203-799-7950, Ridgefield Conservatory of Dance: Ridgefield Playhouse, 80 E. Ridge. Saturday, Dec. 8, 2 and 6 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 9, 2 p.m. $25 adults, $20 seniors, $15 children. 203-438-5795, Connecticut Dance School: Quick Center for the Arts at Fairfield University, 1073 N. Benson Road, Fairfield. Sunday, Dec. 9, 1 and 4 p.m. $40; $25, seniors, children and students. 203-254-4010, Connecticut Ballet: Palace Theatre, 61 Atlantic St., Stamford. Saturdays and Sundays, Dec. 15 and 16; Dec. 22 and 23, 2 p.m. $25-$50. 203-325-4466,, 203-964-1211,

"I definitely always wanted to be Clara," said Kushner, who recalled watching from the wings as a little girl. "I can still remember being an angel ... watching wishfully as Clara danced her pas de deux with the Nutcracker."

The chance to inspire the dancers coming after you also is a distinct Nutcracker tradition, she said. "My hope now is that I can be the inspiration for some little girl just like Clara once inspired me."

Through that admiration, aspiring dancers can begin to hone their craft, said Royse Burlingame, who started dancing at about age 3 with the

Orange-based New

England Ballet Company.

"When you are younger, you are looking at the older girls who are dancing, and everyone wants to be Clara," said Burlingame, 26, who teaches and runs rehearsals at the school. She will be the Snow Queen in the company's production this year. "You try to dance like them and improve."

For many organizations, the production also offers a chance for community outreach, since not all roles demand a high level of expertise.

The Stamford-based Connecticut Ballet, for example, annually has open auditions to fill about 100 children's roles. In some instances, it gives aspiring dancers their first chance to share the stage with professional dancers, including guest artists from the American Ballet Theatre and members of the company.

At Fairfield-based Connecticut Dance School, the corps of characters are in-house.

"There is a chance to move up in the ranks," said Alan Woodard, the school's artistic director.

Such a progression leads to a great lesson in discipline and the value of hard work -- two elements that are crucial to those wanting to pursue dance as a profession, he added.