While awaiting their turn to twirl in the Charlotte Ballet performance of “Nutcracker,” the six young dancers who play Clara are doing homework on top of memorizing difficult steps and spacing.
They’re also studying and practicing the many emotions of the classic character that’s one of the most coveted roles of the year in dance.
The Charlotte Ballet performances of the holiday classic begin Dec. 3 and finish up just before Christmas on Dec. 23. Before you go, get to know the six rising stars who play Clara in this season’s shows with this question-and-answer session. (Responses have been edited for clarity and length.)
Mary Owen is 15 and has been dancing since she was 5. The Charlotte Country Day School student eventually wants to become a therapist who specializes in dancer stress, mental health and eating disorders.
What do you like best about playing Clara?: I get to make up my own character and add my own personality to the performance.
What’s the most difficult part of playing Clara?: Balancing dance with school is very difficult, so time management and prioritizing is super important during these busy months. I also give myself grace. If I have one B, it is not going to make my entire life fall apart. Before one of us gets to run it in front of everyone, we give each other little pep talks and tell each other that they’re going to do great.
What does playing the role mean to you?: Sometimes I forget I’m in this role. I’ll think about it and be like, Oh my gosh, I’m actually playing Clara. It really is so exciting. I still have a little box under my bed of “Nutcracker” memories. My first year I played a mouse. (After the show), I went up to Clara, who was like 14 years old, and I thought she was amazing. Her name was actually Clara. So I asked for her autograph, and I still have it under my bed. It’s so crazy that now I’m in that spot.
Meila Mertz, 14
Melia Mertz, 14, is a Providence Day School student who’s been dancing since she was 3. After graduation, she hopes to incorporate dance in her life while pursuing a law degree.
What do you like best about playing Clara?: Being able to perform alongside some of the company members. I’ve idolized them since I started dancing at Charlotte Ballet Academy.
What is the greatest challenge in playing Clara?: Finding out what type of character I want to embody while on stage. My goal is to be unique and different from past Claras and add my own personality to the role.
Do you remember the first time you saw Nutcracker and how you felt?: The first time I saw the (Charlotte Ballet) “Nutcracker,” I thought the Mouse King was terrifying. But the sugar plums and snow and Clara — it was just very fun.
Frances Liles, a Charlotte Country Day School student, is taking after her mom as a dancer. She’s 13 and has been dancing since she was 3. Liles dreams of traveling the world someday.
What do you like best about playing Clara?: My fellow dancers are amazing, and sharing this experience with them is probably the best part. They’re so kind and talented, and I love that they’re here for me for every step of the process.
What’s the greatest challenge in playing Clara?: A big part of getting into character is to go home and write about what kind of Clara we’re going to be, the emotions we’re going to portray on stage and how we’re going to act.
What does it mean to you to be involved in this production?: It’s just great that I get to be involved in the “Nutcracker” and that my family can come see me. I feel like I’m being like my mom. She loves to come watch.
Julia Ellington, 15, is a Cannon School student. She’s been dancing since age 3. “I love dancing so much, and I can’t imagine a life where ballet isn’t in it,” Ellington said. “It would be a dream to be a part of Charlotte Ballet’s pre-professional division and, later, company. But I know that if I follow my heart I’ll be happy wherever I go.”
What do you like best about playing Clara?: I loved developing her character, learning all her choreography and getting to work with other amazing members of the company. I’ve also loved getting to know and work with the other Claras and students. It’s just an incredible opportunity that I never dreamed I would have.
What’s the most difficult part of playing Clara?: I am new to the academy this year, so learning the order and style of Charlotte Ballet’s “Nutcracker” was all new to me. But it’s been so fun getting to know our “Nutcracker.”
What is this experience like for you?: It’s new and exciting. I’ve met all these amazing people and made so many great connections. My dance family is like a real family to me, and it’s just so fun to be around.
Alana Yosief is 12 and has been dancing since age 3. After graduating from Charlotte Country Day School, she wants to go to Columbia University. While in college, she hopes to become a professional dancer at the School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center. Later, she plans to pursue a career in the medical field, perhaps as an anesthesiologist or a pediatric oncologist.
What’s your favorite thing about playing Clara?: Experiencing all of Clara’s emotions through her adventure — fear while she is fighting the Mouse King, wonderment when she enters the Land of Sweets . It’s extremely fulfilling to experience all of Clara’s emotions.
What is the biggest challenge of playing Clara?: Balancing school and rehearsals. Dancing takes up so much time — usually, we have all-day rehearsals on the weekends. It makes it challenging to finish homework and study. Thankfully, our ballet teachers allow us to bring homework into rehearsals.
What does this experience mean to you?: This is the first ballet performance that I ever saw with my family, when I was 3. Ever since then, I’ve always been really attached to it. It’s my first year playing Clara but my third year in the “Nutcracker.”
Violet Dubreuil, 14, attends school through North Carolina Virtual Academy. She’s been dancing since she was 2 and dreams of pursuing a career in dance around New York City.
What’s your favorite part about playing Clara?: I love how there’s so much acting and expression put into Clara’s character. It’s really exciting to act out her story.
What’s the most difficult part of playing Clara for you?: Being committed to the role mentally and physically is challenging because you have to maintain stamina throughout the performances. And spacing. Since I’m a cover (an understudy), I have multiple places to memorize on the stage.
What’s your favorite scene?: My favorite scene is snow, because it feels like snow actually falling from the sky. It’s actually little pieces of paper, but it’s really cool to watch.
Charlotte Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’
When: Dec. 3-23; with 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. showings
Where: Belk Theater at Blumenthal Performing Arts Center
Tickets: $25-$114 at blumenthalarts.org or 704-372-1000
Details: Proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test is required for those 12 and up.
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