Ayako Takahashi has taught ballet students since 1976, but she still faces challenges.
“I have to produce strong dancers every year. Most principal dancers graduate right after performing their leading roles,” says Takahashi, director of Peninsula Youth Ballet, who is at the helm of the troupe’s annual “Nutcracker.”
This year’s production, opening Nov. 30 at the refurbished San Mateo Performing Arts Center, again features ballet students between 8 and 18 from all over the region as well as professional dancers including Jekyns Palaez from Diablo Ballet; Matthew Linzer, formerly of Smuin Ballet; and Akira Takahashi from Ballet San Jose.
Student dancers include Mari Kojima, Kayla Jumig and Sophia Kourtoglou as little Clara, and Karina Eimon, Tracy Wheelright and Alanna Cummiskey as teenage Clara.
Takahashi attributes the continuing popularity of “Nutcracker” to the fact that it tells a story, making it accessible to people who don’t know much about ballet.
Her favorite part is the snow scene, in which heroine Clara dances a pas de deux with the title character, who has transformed into a prince. She also enjoys the ethnic-inspired dance sequences in the second half of the ballet, which, she says, give young dancers the chance to learn different styles.
An instructor who learned to dance at schools in Japan and England, Takahashi trains her students in the Russian Baganova style of ballet, which she calls dynamic, with a lot of upper body movement.
Youngsters, who audition to appear in “Nutcracker,” typically begin in flat shoes before going on to en pointe ballet. “We try to prepare the muscles in their feet and toes,” says Takahashi, and even with the training, she admits that they can have foot problems.
A highlight of the 2013 “Nutcracker” is the particularly grand setting, the 1,540-seat San Mateo Performing Arts Center, designed by architect Mark Quattrocchi in a $28 million renovation project.
Performances also include post-show gatherings, where guests may meet the dancers and enjoy refreshments. Admission to “Clara’s Tea Party” costs $10.
IF YOU GO
Where: San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo
When: 2 p.m. Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 7, 2 p.m. Dec. 8
Tickets: $25 to $75