As a young girl, Shannon Dunbar had visions of Clara dancing in her head.

The Portland teenager, who shares the role of Clara in this year’s Maine State Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium, grew up fantasizing about the role.

“It’s a dream for every little girl,” said Dunbar, 15, who attends Deering High School. “I think especially since ‘The Nutcracker’ is such a traditional show, a lot of girls see it every year. Clara is the center of attention, so they want to do that. I saw her as a role model when I was a girl.”

Sharing the role is Adrienne Pelletier of Raymond, also 15.

“I am so honored to perform this role,” said Pelletier, who is home-schooled. “I definitely feel pressure. I have talked to others who have done it, and it’s nerve-wracking. There is a lot to learn and a lot to do. But once I step out on the stage, my nerves go away.”

The Maine State Ballet presents its version of “The Nutcracker” seven times, beginning Saturday. Performances continue through Dec. 2.

Almost 300 dancers from the Maine State Ballet Company, its dance school and other dance schools in Maine will perform, along with the Maine State Ballet Orchestra.

Pelletier will perform Clara four times; Dunbar, three. Both will dance other roles in all other performances. And both have been dancing at Maine State since they were wee little girls — this year marks Dunbar’s 11th “Nutcracker” and the ninth for Pelletier.

It’s the first time in many years that two Maine State Ballet dancers have alternated in this role. Linda Miele, the company’s artistic director who has overseen this production since 1976, said she couldn’t pick one for the role, because it wouldn’t have been fair to the other girl.

Last year’s Clara, 16-year-old Elise Bickford of Falmouth, has been promoted to the Maine State Ballet Company. Bickford will dance as a soloist and with the corps de ballet in the second act this year.

The Maine State “Nutcracker” is one of several versions of the Tchaikovsky classic scheduled across the region. Portland Ballet presents its less traditional version of the ballet, “The Victorian Nutcracker,” Dec. 8-9 at the Merrill.

Maine State Ballet’s version stands as the kick-off for seasonal entertainment in Portland’s performing arts community. Beginning with Saturday’s performance, the Merrill and other venues will feature holiday-themed entertainment for five weekends, right up through Christmas.

Among them: The return after a one-year hiatus of “A Christmas Carol” to Portland Stage Company, the Portland Symphony Orchestra’s “Magic of Christmas” concert and “Christmas with Cornils.” The latter features Portland’s municipal organist, Ray Cornils, performing at new sites in Portland and Lewiston while the historic Kotzschmar Organ at Merrill undergoes a massive restoration.

But “The Nutcracker” is the granddaddy of them all. It premiered in Russia in 1892, but did not become a holiday staple until the late 1960s. Now it’s performed by ballet companies across the country.

Miele has a deep personal history with “The Nutcracker.” She moved to New York at age 11 to study at George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet. At 14, she was accepted into the New York City Ballet Company, and danced in “The Nutcracker” more than 400 times at Lincoln Center.

Husband and wife Glenn and Janet Davis reprise their roles as the Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy. Kate Bennett also returns to her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy, splitting time with Janet Davis. Scarborough High School junior Maiki Saito plays the Russian Cossack.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or:

bkeyes@pressherald.com

Twitter: pphbkeyes