FALMOUTH – If this season’s production of “The Nutcracker” at Merrill Auditorium feels a little like a Falmouth High School spirit rally, there’s good reason.

The ballet’s two principals, Michael Holden and Elise Bickford, are teenagers from Falmouth and high school peers. Holden, 17, a junior, and Bickford, 15, a sophomore, take center stage as the Nutcracker Prince and Clara in the Maine State Ballet production of the classic holiday story.

The MSB version of “The Nutcracker” opens Saturday and will run for seven performances through Dec. 4. (Portland Ballet will present its version of the tale with a twist, “The Victorian Nutcracker,” for two performances, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23, also at the Merrill.)

This will be Holden’s 14th year performing in the MSB version of “The Nutcracker,” but his first in a starring role. He replaces an adult, Glenn Davis, who danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince for 15 years.

“Michael is ready for this challenge,” said Linda MacArthur Miele, the ballet company’s co-founder and artistic director. “He’s been training really hard, and this is his time. It is time for Michael.”

Holden has been accepted at the School of American Ballet in New York City, one of the elite ballet schools in the country. He couldn’t attend this year because of complications associated with housing and schooling, but he intends to audition again and hopes to enroll next year.

Holden, who sports a perpetual smile and bushy red hair, understands the pressure he faces.

“This is unlike any role I’ve ever done before,” he said. “It will be interesting to be in charge and to be the story. I’m playing a prince. It’s totally different. It’s the role that people know, and it’s certainly a higher standard than what I have done in ‘The Nutcracker’ until now.”

Holden has been dancing since he was 3. His parents, who detected a streak of energy in their son when he was a toddler, enrolled him in dance classes as a way to channel that energy, he said. “I just never have wanted to stop.”

Bickford bloomed a little later. Although she danced with Maine State Ballet for several years, Miele didn’t notice her range of talents until two years ago.

“She has a lovely quality about her that is very much like what Clara should be,” Miele said. “She is sweet, beautiful and fun with a beautiful personality. There’s something about her — I just like watching her. She has clean, beautiful technique.

“I feel like there is something there that is special. I think she is going to get on stage and surprise everyone. We’re going to hear a lot of, ‘Oh, where did she come from?’ “

For his part, Holden has enjoyed his time with Bickford during rehearsals, and is eager to see how their chemistry translates in front of an audience. “It’s awesome to dance with her. She’s really cool,” he said.

Miele wasn’t planning to change her principal dancers this year. But during auditions, she saw Holden and Bickford standing together, “and I could picture in my head how they would look as Clara and the Prince.”

This is Miele’s 35th year directing “The Nutcracker” in Portland. This year’s production includes 292 dancers ranging in age from preschool to adult, and hailing from 39 towns and cities across southern Maine.

In addition, the production features music by the Maine State Ballet Orchestra, the Musica de Filia Girlchoir and the Westcustogo Youth Chorale.

“The Nutcracker” debuted in Russia in December 1892, with original music by Tchaikovsky. It has been popular as holiday entertainment, particularly in the United States, since the mid-20th century, thanks largely to choreographer George Balanchine, with whom Miele danced for many years.

Balanchine’s version debuted in 1954 and remains the most influential.

Miele stays true to the Balanchine version. She tweaks things here and there and adjusts aspects of the choreography to suit the talents of individual dancers.

But she never messes with the heart and soul of the show.

“I do not feel the need to fix what is not broken,” she said.

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

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Twitter: pphbkeyes