At 14, Sarah McVey has already clinched a career high.

The young ballet dancer swears by it.

"I've been dreaming about doing this my entire life," Sarah, an eighth-grader at Pleasant Valley Junior High School, said.

She has at least been dreaming about it — being Clara in Ballet Quad-Cities' production of "The Nutcracker" — since she was in first grade.

"I remember seeing (‘The Nutcracker’) for the first time and it was just so cool," she said. "I thought, 'I want to be that when I'm older.'"

You can tell that Sarah’s big smile — as seen when she talks about the “extremely nerve-filled” audition process and as seen in a photo as she waits to go on stage for a recent dress rehearsal — will bring something fresh to “The Nutcracker,” which hits the Adler Theatre stage on Saturday.

“I’ve had many Claras over the years and I can tell you that a Clara needs to sparkle on stage — it’s her party,” Joedy Cook, founder of Ballet Quad-Cities, said. “And that’s what our beautiful Sarah does."

“The Nutcracker” is a not-to-be-messed-with tradition for Ballet Quad-Cities, according to Cook. About 40 dancers are set to perform with the live backing of Orchestra Iowa.

The company, which continues to celebrate its current 20th anniversary season, has presented the timeless tale since opening in 1996.

“Everyone loves 'The Nutcracker' and everyone recognizes it,” Cook said. “It’s our bread and butter. We won't stop doing it because it introduces a new audience to the ballet every year." 

The love has spread elsewhere in Iowa — enough for Iowa Public Radio to call Iowa this year’s "Nutcracker Capital of the World.”

That's because, along with a slew of versions happening this month around the state, the Joffrey Ballet previewed its first new “Nutcracker,” in five performances last week at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City. Plus, the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony is slated to unveil a new performance portraying Duke Ellington's jazz version of “The Nutcracker”  on Saturday in Cedar Falls.

Cook attributes the story’s success to “a love of Christmas and all the magic of stepping into a winter wonderland.”

The story — complete with the Sugar Plum fairies, the battle of the Mouse King and the journey of Clara — may stay the same; however, Cook says each year’s rendition changes, in subtle ways.

“There are new costumes, new ways of presenting things every single year,” she said. “When you always have new dancers, they bring something different to it.”

That goes for Sarah McVey, too. 

The two performances on Saturday will mark the culmination of nearly three months of practice for her and the other dancers, who are mostly twice her age.

“I learn so much so from the other dancers ... mostly how hard they work and how easy they make it look,” she said. 

She has also learned to be more confident.

This year marks her fourth appearance in "The Nutcracker," following years of smaller background roles. Back in September, she was nervous to look at the casting board. Her mom told her to text the results either way — good or bad. 

It was good news. 

"Last year, I just had one small part, so I didn't know what to expect,” she said. “When I got it, I had this feeling of beyond disbelief. I realized I actually could do it and I started believing in myself. It taught me that you have to keep trying and everything will work out." 

And, as Cook says, that kind of confidence tends to sparkle on stage.

“Sarah illuminates the role of Clara,” Cook said. “She is simply radiant and innocent. Her dream has come true and that’s a magical thing to see.”

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Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).