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A Plum Part–Celebrating the season en pointe

Visions of Sugar Plum may  dance in the heads of young ballerinas, but when it comes to staging holiday classic The Nutcracker with local dance students, the role that’s right is sometimes unexpected.

Sugar Plum twirls across the stage en pointe, sparkling in her classic tutu and tiara, at the end of her grand pas de duex. The audience explodes in applause. This is the iconic Nutcracker moment they have been waiting for. But for the dancers who perform The Nutcracker, this principle role is not the sole spotlight. There is another “plum” part, beautiful and intricate, mesmerizing and memorable, and yet wholly untraditional.

Enter Arabian. The princess clad in harem pants, dancing a beguiling partner piece that illuminates her flexibility and finesse.

Seeing a performance of The Nutcracker ballet is a holiday tradition for many families, and the ballet celebrates 75 years in America this year. The story of a girl and a magical gift inspires seasonal wonder amid a reverie of dancing snowflakes and flower fairies. But for some young ballerinas, it is also a gateway to a dream world of dance that is both traditional and transcendent, passed on from generation to generation.

Pound Ridge resident Ginna Ortiz was about five years old and growing up in Puerto Rico when her aunt took her to see The Nutcracker for the first time. Inspired, she began studying ballet the following year. After moving with her family to the states in middle school, she majored in dance at SUNY Purchase.

Soon after, Ortiz received a contract with the Dance Theater of Harlem company. From there, she was first hired in 1996 to perform one of the lead Nutcracker roles in New Canaan for a performance with the New England Academy of Dance (NEAD). Two years later, she was teaching at NEAD part-time. In 2003, she took over as owner and director.

Many dance schools produce yearly Nutcrackers but often don’t have dancers who are capable of playing all of the lead roles, so they hire professionals to fill in as guest artists. As a young professional, Oritz played a variety of Nutcracker roles in New Canaan, including her favorite, the Arabian Princess. “Sugar Plum is challenging and nerve-wracking,” she says. Describing what is widely considered the lead role, Ortiz explains that the staccato tinkling sounds of Sugar Plum’s music are immediately recognizable, and the choreography is a classical variation likely originating from the ballet’s first performance 127 years ago. Dancers, she says, feel a level of responsibility and pressure to get it right. “But Arabian is beautiful. The partnering is intricate. You can really lose yourself in the role.”

Referring to Sugar Plum and Clara, she elaborates that “certain parts look amazing, but as a dancer, other parts feel amazing.”

This year at NEAD, Arabian is being played by 17-year-old Bedford resident Emma Scanlan, a senior at Fox Lane High School. “We had this vision: what if we train our dancers to do these roles ourselves?” says Ortiz. “Now we have all these proficient dancers competing for the top roles. We created a monster.”

Nearly 200 dancers from the school audition for The Nutcracker every year, and selecting who will play the 26 mice, 72 flowers, and other iconic roles can be fraught. “Every part is important,” says Oritz.

After a full day of auditioning, Scanlan, who played the Snow Queen last year, was hopeful for a challenging lead role with a solo. It will be her tenth and last year dancing The Nutcracker with NEAD, as she heads off to college next fall, so the pressure to secure a plum part was palpable. “I am definitely nervous and excited,” she said as awaited word of her role. “You’ve danced all you can, and now you are waiting. It is the last one, and you want it to be a good experience.”

When she found out she was selected to play Arabian a few days later, “I was super-excited,” she says. “It is nice to know that after so much work, you get to dance a role that you’ve been hoping for.”

The part will be a new stretch for Scanlan. “Snow Queen is more traditional, and this role is more challenging and has the added challenge of partnering,” she says. Arabian dances with a male dancer, who will be a hired professional in the NEAD performance. “It will be fun to explore another side and mix it up for my last role.”

While she prepares for her final Nutcracker, knowing it will be an emotional farewell, Scanlan is enjoying the opportunity to mentor many younger dancers, as she is responsible for teaching the Candy Canes and Bon Bons their parts. “They look up to you,” she says. “You can inspire them by teaching and dancing with them.”

Many of the younger local NEAD dancers seem to be influenced by her already, citing Arabian as their favorite part. “The music is gorgeous, and it is beautiful to watch, it is so different,” says 14-year-old Charlotte Cape of Bedford, who will play a Chinese and a Rose this year but cites a big rat as the favorite role she has played so far. “It was a really funny role,” she says.

Ortiz is thrilled to be passing the role—her favorite one to dance—on to Scanlan, who will be wearing the same costume she wore when she danced the role at NEAD. “We jazzed it up a bit,” Oritz says, referring to some sequins and sparkles that were recently added. But like the role, and even The Nutcracker itself, the costume is a bit of ballet tradition, passed on from generation to generation.

Performances of The Nutcracker by NEAD will take place December 6, 7, 8 2019 at New Canaan High School.

Photo by Tomas Donoso


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