By Josh Maloni
Night & Day
Night & Day — Dreams come true when “The Nutcracker” takes stage.
Clara’s Christmas Eve slumber, of course, gives rise to an action-packed duel between the evil mouse king and brave nutcracker prince, and a magical journey through the “Land of Snow” and “Kingdom of Sweets.”
The Greater Niagara Ballet Co.’s production of “The Nutcracker” is on stage at 7:30 p.m. Friday and at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Niagara Falls High School Performing Arts Center, 4455 Porter Road. Tickets are on sale now, and will be available at the door.
For the pre-teen girls dancing with the Greater Niagara Ballet Co., dreams come true a little sooner: when two of them are cast in the lead role.
This year, that honor belongs to Sophia Currie, 12, of Lewiston, and Tatum McLean, 12, of Niagara Falls, Ont.
“I’m really excited, because I’ve always wanted to play Clara,” Sophia said.
For these girls, playing Clara is significant because “a lot of little girls (will) look up to (us),” Tatum said.
That’s a big deal because Sophia and Tatum, like the Claras before them, began dancing with the GNBC as “little girls” looking up to their older castmates.
“I’ve been in the production for six years. I’ve been wanting to be this role for a while,” Tatum said.
Grace Gruarin, now 19 and performing as the Dew Drop Fairy, was 13 when she starred as Clara.
“It was a really big part, because before then you’re just a little girl in the party scene,” she said. “When you get picked, it’s like you’re a princess. It (means) a lot when you’re that age.
“When I was little, it was my older sister (in lead roles), and all the girls in her age group were Claras, so I knew all of them. Whenever I talked to them, it was like talking to a superstar. … I wanted to be them. And then when I was Clara, I was just so excited because I was going to be with them.”
Aniko Nagy, 16, was Clara in 2007. For her, the opportunity “meant that you were finally becoming one of the important girls in the company, because that was when you first started to interact with the corps and the principals, and it really meant that you were on your way to becoming something greater than just part of the company.”
“It was a great honor,” she said. “Watching the Claras before me, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, I want to be her.’ You’re just kind of thinking, ‘Oh, well maybe next year, if I work hard enough, I can probably eventually get up to that status.’ “
Post-Clara, Aniko has had many lead roles in Act II.
Beverley Feder, the GNBC’s artistic director, said, “Unfortunately, everyone can’t be Clara. But if you are selected as Clara, it’s an experience – one to remember. It’s a good memory.”
For her, “The Nutcracker” is “one of my special ballets that I enjoy seeing, and I can see it time and time again.” She said it took many years for the GNBC to raise funds to purchase the rights to the show, and then a lot of hard work to make her version successful. For that reason, Feder doesn’t take casting lightly.
“When I look at the students, I look for size, No. 1, to make sure that they can fit into the (Clara) outfit,” she said. “I look at their feet to see if they have a nice stretch. And they have to have a dance background. Most of all, they have to have a charisma and a beautiful presentation with their face, because they basically carry the first act.”
Feder’s assistant, Julie Traver, said the key to Clara is “being able to communicate with an audience. To look out at the audience; to express themselves to the audience. Clara has to be happy, and angry, and she needs to show all kinds of emotions. She also, obviously, has to dance and be able to pick up things. Clara has to carry the show, pretty much. It’s about being able to dance with everyone else, but also really relate to the audience.”
Traver, who once danced for Feder in “The Nutcracker,” has been teaching students show choreography for 15 years. In 2010, her daughter, Lily, was cast as Clara. Watching those performances was, “A little nerve-wracking,” Traver said, laughing. “Just knowing the ballet so well – knowing that they have so much on their shoulders – I think I was more nervous than her. But she did a fabulous job, and it meant the world to me. It was wonderful.”
Lily, now 11, often works with Olivia Duke, 12 (also Clara in 2010), and Victoria Wagner, 13 (Clara in 2011), in coaching the younger dancers.
“I knew all the other Claras really (well), because I had been with them since I was little,” Lily said. “It was really fun for me because they were always there and they helped me a lot. That was really nice.”
“You kind of have to be able to learn from the other people – other than the teachers – which is kind of hard sometimes,” she said. “We’ll watch them a lot, the other Claras, and we’ll give them corrections just like anyone else would.”
Tatum said the other Claras “gave me advice on how I should dance and how I should do my emotion – when I’m angry or when I’m sad. They’re helpful.
“I’m sure that at the performance it’s going to be very exciting.”
Soon after “The Nutcracker” wraps, Tatum and Sophia will take their place alongside the other Claras in working with the next generation of performers. They’ll officially be “big girls” helping “little girls” achieve their goals.
“I think when you’re little, when you’re dancing here, all you want to do is be Clara,” Gruarin said. “It’s definitely a dream.”Joshua Maloni is the GNBC publicist.