About this time every year, countless girls across America and around the world see performances of the classic ballet The Nutcracker. The experience leads many of those girls to conjure up a big dream – to dance the ballet’s central solo role of Clara.
“It’s something that I think every little female ballet dancer strives for,” said Edwaard Liang, artistic director of BalletMet, in a recent phone interview. “It’s a dream, and it doesn’t happen for everyone, but it’s something that is transformative.”
That transformation – a young dancer’s journey to embodying Clara – is the focus of Finding Clara, a documentary produced in collaboration by BalletMet and Justice Studios, the entertainment division of the Columbus-based tween brand Justice.
First released in episodes as a web series on YouTube and more recently in its complete form, Finding Clara follows the four dancers – Molly, Alaina, Lauren Grace and Isabelle – chosen to dance Clara in BalletMet’s 2017 Nutcracker production, from late-August auditions through nearly four months of rehearsals and to their triumphant December performances in ballet’s most important child soloist role.
BalletMet Academy teacher and rehearsal assistant Darielle Kamer-Eberhard has been coaching dancers on the role of Clara since 2003 and had, as a young dancer, herself performed the role with BalletMet. She sees the role as a dynamic one, in which a very young girl must grow up quickly in the midst of challenging, often frightening circumstances.
“I see this as a very young girl who has to grow up a lot throughout the course of, basically, Act One,” Kamer-Eberhard said. “She goes from being this complete innocent little thing. And then she has to kind of mature, and she has to kind of see her future a little bit. And I think that that gives her a different perspective on her own life from the get-go.”
Learning how to dance Clara, Kamer-Eberhard says, is much more than learning the footwork, which is challenging enough. Each dancer must also learn who Clara is and find her own distinct Clara in order to dance the role convincingly.
Exploring the character’s emotional depths and finding ways to communicate those nuances in movement can be a tall order for young dancers, who, in BalletMet’s 2017 Nutcracker production, ranged in age from 10 to 12 years old.
Kamer-Eberhard gears much of her work coaching such young dancers to learn the role of Clara toward helping them discover empathy for Clara’s experiences by tapping into their own personal experiences.
“I get to know these girls really, really well and then try to relate something – maybe they lost a pet and they were very sad about that,” Kamer-Eberhard said. “And so we talk about empathy and we talk about Clara’s character and how Clara, too, has a huge heart and try to relate it to things that occur or have occurred in their personal lives.
“I also have the children do a lot of research into the period,” she continued. “So it’s through that process and it’s through just kind of pulling out of them things that are within their experiences that they can then translate into this other person.”
Full of behind-the-scenes footage and candid moments with the Claras themselves, Finding Clara shows each of BalletMet’s 2017 Claras striving to understand and inhabit her own version of the character in the real-world context of a demanding rehearsal schedule and on top of school and family obligations.
“Any (BalletMet) Academy dancer that is a part of the production has been rehearsing since September – September, October, November, December – that’s four months of dedication, of five to six days a week of classes and rehearsals on top of that, plus their schoolwork, plus their parents shuttling them around,” Liang said.
“It is definitely a lot,” he continued. “But what’s amazing is that being a ballet dancer, most ballet dancers get the best grades out there. Most ballet dancers, whether they become professionals or not, learn work ethic, and learn responsibility and time management like no other. They also learn grace, confidence, communication, being able to take direction well, understanding gratitude. It’s transformative for these young people and young artists. It’s a huge feat.”
Each year that huge feat results in BalletMet’s more than 20 performances of The Nutcracker and reaches tens of thousands of audience members.
“Every Nutcracker season, we’re reaching over 30,000 people,” Liang said. “That’s a huge platform.”
With such a huge platform, and with Clara in the spotlight for so much of The Nutcracker, finding an authentic Clara is an absolute imperative. But, as Kamer-Eberhard has learned through the years, there are as many Claras as there are dancers whose dream to dance the role comes true.
“(The role) changes almost every year a little bit,” she said, “because as more texture and more different voices from these young ladies are added to it, she becomes a richer character, in my opinion. And I think that each young dancer that I’ve worked with, I have found, has brought their own pieces to it.
Said Kamer-Eberhard: “It’s a fascinating thing to me to watch, too, because they each have developed their own character and brought something to it. So I find that she evolves every year because there are so many different wonderful children who have inhabited that role.”