These ‘Nutcracker’ dancers are Charlotte’s Claras. But they’ve got homework, too.

·7 min read

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

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.

Mary Owen’s favorite “Nutcracker” moment is the battle scene. “Being a mouse my first year and then my second year being a soldier, now I’m like a third party, so it’s fun to see it happen. It’s filled with so much action and excitement,” she said.
Mary Owen’s favorite “Nutcracker” moment is the battle scene. “Being a mouse my first year and then my second year being a soldier, now I’m like a third party, so it’s fun to see it happen. It’s filled with so much action and excitement,” she said.

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.

Melia Mertz said she’s excited to share the “Nutcracker” experience with the audience. “I want them to feel like they are actually in a wonderland full of Sugar Plum Fairies, angels and candy canes.”
Melia Mertz said she’s excited to share the “Nutcracker” experience with the audience. “I want them to feel like they are actually in a wonderland full of Sugar Plum Fairies, angels and candy canes.”

Frances Liles

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.

Frances Liles said the dancers who play Clara have so much to learn and there’s so many details. “It’s quite a lot to remember. All of the different parts and different orders are difficult at first, but after all the rehearsals we’ll be ready to nail it for the performances.”
Frances Liles said the dancers who play Clara have so much to learn and there’s so many details. “It’s quite a lot to remember. All of the different parts and different orders are difficult at first, but after all the rehearsals we’ll be ready to nail it for the performances.”

Julia Ellington

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.

Julia Ellington’s favorite “Nutcracker” scene is the party. “It’s such fun music, and I love interacting with all our different characters. Clara is different with each one of the characters, and we try to portray that relationship,” she said.
Julia Ellington’s favorite “Nutcracker” scene is the party. “It’s such fun music, and I love interacting with all our different characters. Clara is different with each one of the characters, and we try to portray that relationship,” she said.

Alana Yosief

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.”

Alana Yosief’s favorite “Nutcracker” scene is Snow (Waltz of the Snowflakes). “I just love their dance, she said. “They actually look like snow, and it’s just so beautiful.”
Alana Yosief’s favorite “Nutcracker” scene is Snow (Waltz of the Snowflakes). “I just love their dance, she said. “They actually look like snow, and it’s just so beautiful.”

Violet Dubreuil

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.

Violet Dubreuil said it’s particularly special for her to dance in “Nutcracker” this year since last year’s version was modified for COVID-19 and young dancers couldn’t perform.
Violet Dubreuil said it’s particularly special for her to dance in “Nutcracker” this year since last year’s version was modified for COVID-19 and young dancers couldn’t perform.

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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