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Chasing Clara

In Richmond Ballet's "The Nutcracker," a host of little girls found a dream role they'll never forget.

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At age 3, when Kimberly Quick saw Richmond Ballet's "The Nutcracker" for the first time, she says, "I told my mom that I would be Clara."

No surprise there. Thousands of little girls, whether or not they even study ballet, dream of playing the role. But not every little girl, says the ballet's Artistic Director Stoner Winslett, is ready for the "huge responsibility" the role entails.

The girl who plays Clara, Winslett says, "must be an extremely focused, calm child." Usually played by a slight girl between the ages of 11 and 13, dressed in a delicate pink nightgown, each year's Clara stands at the nexus of a mammoth holiday tradition and bears the weight not only of her own dreams but also of others' dreams and memories — audience and aspiring dancers alike.

Winslett and Judy Jacob, director of the School of Richmond Ballet, describe how each Clara (usually two are selected, one for each cast) must possess an elusive combination of ballet technique, strong stage presence, poise and "that sense of wonder," says Jacob, that characterizes Clara and makes her such an iconic figure. "The most important things are a big imagination and an expressive face," Winslett notes, because Clara must project all the way to the upper balconies of the Landmark Theater.

Quick auditioned for and was cast as Clara in 2003. A storm kept her in the house the day casting was announced, and she was not supposed to call the ballet to ask about results. "I didn't think I was going to make it," she says. Luckily her friend's mother called with the good news, Quick says, and "I started screaming on the phone."

Many Claras use words like "shocked," "overwhelmed" and "nervous" to describe their reaction to the news of their good fortune. Kathryn Sparks, who danced the part in 1984, says she went home after finding out, jumped in the air from excitement, fell on her tailbone and was sore for days afterward.

Most Claras begin dancing when they are 3 to 9 years old and work their way up through "The Nutcracker" roles such as mice, Mother Ginger children or children in Act 1's party scene. Shifting into a role around which the entire story revolves, girls dancing Clara may well vacillate between wide-eyed nervousness and uncontrollable excitement.

Kate Robertson (1999), like several others, cites the thrill of dancing "when no one else was on stage" as the Christmas tree grew taller and taller. JoEllen Constine (1980) "can still remember the steps of the solo" she danced at that point, and Scottie Thompson (1994) says she had trouble counting that music, "so I was always really nervous."

Another intense moment for Claras has been the pas de deux with Drosselmeyer, the mysterious visitor who gives her the nutcracker and facilitates her magic journey. The duet contains lifts and partnering work that most of the girls have never experienced before, Jacob says, which "takes a certain poise" to pull off. Caroline Gerloff (2000, 2001) says it's "the one part you work the most for," and Sparks loved "to be lifted and twirled around."

Not only must a Clara demonstrate mastery of a certain level of ballet technique, she must also embrace the role as an actress. She contains both a girl's wonder at her own good fortune to have landed such a role, and her character's wonder at the magical world she beholds. At the same time she serves as a mirror for the audience's wonder at the beauty of the ballet.

Quick says she felt an adrenaline rush each night in "becoming the character" of Clara and feeling a connection to the audience. The character-driven aspect and "the rush of that sort of role as a young child," led Thompson deeper into dance and eventually to acting, which she's made into a career.

The experience of dancing Clara stays with these women, whether they continue dancing or move down other paths. When Sparks sees "The Nutcracker" now, she says, Clara's pas de deux with Drosselmeyer still brings tears to her eyes. Robertson recalls every step by heart. When Gerloff, 19, is out with friends, she says, they may still ask her to "do a Clara move." Best of all, Eve Grandis-Campbell (1982, 1983), a partner in a local law firm, says friends and family may still introduce her as Clara, and strangers occasionally ask, "Weren't you Clara in 'The Nutcracker'?"

Winslett says "Nutcracker" aficionados often ask, "How are the Claras this year?" Her response on behalf of the 2006 Claras — Vivien Ferguson and Kate Webb — has been, "They are really extraordinary this year, with that natural, honest quality that comes straight from the heart." S

"The Nutcracker," presented by the Richmond Ballet and Richmond Symphony, runs through Dec. 23 at the Landmark Theater, 7 p.m. Tickets are $18-$100. Call 262-8100 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.

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