Volume 75, Number 29 | December 7 - 13, 2005


George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker
Score by Ilyitch Tschaikovsky
Choreography by George Balanchine
Through December 30
New York City Ballet, performed at The New York State Theater
Lincoln Center Plaza, at Columbus Avenue and 63rd Street
(212-721-6500, www.nycballet.com)

Paul Kolnik

Clara Ruf-Maldonado as Marie, and Austin Bachman as the Nutcracker Prince in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” now playing at Lincoln Center through December 30.

For one tiny dancer, dreams do come true

By Steven Snyder

Come winter, find a ballet company just about anywhere, and there is bound to be a production of “The Nutcracker” nearby.

For more than a century it has become a staple of the holidays, one of those rare artistic events that has attained a sense of timeless longevity, awaited every year by eager families and children for whom “The Nutcracker” is not only an introduction to ballet but, for some, the genesis of a larger dream: To become a dancer.

Not too long ago, young Clara Ruf-Maldonado was one of those dreamers. As one of 300 students currently attending the renowned School of American Ballet at Lincoln Center, the official ballet school for the New York City Ballet, which has produced “The Nutcracker” for over 50 years, the graceful and exuberant 9-year-old has both seen and acted in the “The Nutcracker” before. But this year, she’s going to be the star.

Clara says she went into the school’s “Nutcracker” auditions hesitantly. She knew the most coveted of all parts for the school’s girls was Marie, one of the show’s most visible characters who remains on stage for nearly the entire production.

“I kept telling my mom, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna get Marie,’ but I was just joking,” Clara said, recalling that day in early October when she left her Lower East Side home for the auditions. “And she said, ‘You never know,’ and later I thought, ‘I guess she was right all along.’”

Later that day, the petite dancer of Dominican descent was cast as one of the two Maries for this year’s production, becoming the first Latina actress ever chosen for the part. Clara and Isabella DeVivo, a returning actress who also played Marie last year, will lead the two children’s casts which alternate performances during the production’s run through Dec. 30.

For Clara, it was a dream come true.

“My belly felt all weird and funny,” she said, noting that “The Nutcracker” is her favorite production. “It’s fun and it’s very magical, and I like things that are magical. I’m really excited.”

In some ways, being chosen to play Marie—or the prince, in the case of the boys—is the most prestigious accomplishment a dancer of Clara’s age can hope to achieve. For starters, a “Nutcracker” hopeful must be part of the elite School of American Ballet, which only instructs 325 children a year between the ages of 8 and 18, and turns away the majority of hopeful applicants. This year 195 dancers auditioned between the ages of 8 and 10, said Amy Bordy, the school’s director of public relations. Only 39 got in.

To be chosen for both the school and out of the nearly 100 younger students who compete to be part of the “Nutcracker” is a considerable honor. But prior to being accepted to the school last year, Clara had already built an impressive resume of acting and ballet experience. The only daughter of Elizabeth Ruf, a community activist and theater historian, and Miguel Maldonado, a long-time immigrant activist, Clara started taking dance classes at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater as a three-year-old. She then went on to dance at the East Village Dance Project and the American Youth Dance Theater, and act in a number of local productions, most notably “Fragments of a Greek Trilogy” at La Mama ETC’s Annex Theater when she was 6 years old.

While Elizabeth said Clara has always exhibited the empathy and enthusiasm of an artist, she is happy her daughter now has the chance to take the stage for a more light-hearted performance.

“Those productions gave her a depth that not every kid has been able to explore with art,” Elizabeth said. “But this is a space for play. The other shows were playful too, but this is the kind of thing she can sink her child-like teeth into.”

The day of the auditions, Clara recalled, she was nervous that she had been overlooked, never suspecting she had, in fact, landed the top part.

As other young performers were chosen to play angels and soldiers, she said she was never called by her teacher, Garielle Whittle, who serves both on the faculty of the School of American Ballet and as the Children’s Ballet Mistress for New York City Ballet, charged with casting, teaching, and rehearsing the children’s casts for “The Nutcracker.”

But then, Clara said, Whittle called her name last and asked her to come to the front of the class. “I thought it was because I was talking to my friend,” Clara said, worried she was in trouble. But then Whittle asked Clara to stand next to a prince and announced she would be one of this year’s Maries.

Whittle said she knew Clara was a likely candidate long before the auditions.

“She’s a good student and she works hard and grasps things fast,” Whittle said. “And besides, she just looks perfect for Marie.”

An instructor at the school for over 20 years, Whittle said the role of Marie has more to do with the look and grace of the chosen ballerinas than the skill of their dancing.

She also said the casts of recent “Nutcrackers” have been more diverse than those of years past. In addition to Clara and DeVivo, who is part-Filipino, she recalled a diverse makeup of boys who have played the part of the prince in recent productions. Given the pivotal role “The Nutcracker” plays in the perceptions of young dancers, Clara’s breakthrough as the first Latina Marie at the New York City Ballet is a notable one.

Several past actresses to play the part of Marie have gone on to prominent ballet careers. Jennie Somogyi played Marie in the 1980s and is now a principal dancer with New York City Ballet. Rachel Piskin and Carrie Lee Riggins, also both Maries, are now corps member with the Ballet. And Judith Fugate, who played Marie in the 1960s, has followed her career at the New York City Ballet by serving as artistic director of the Fugate/Bahiri Ballet NY.

Whittle said the production not only attracts new students to the world of ballet, but also has profound effects on those current students chosen to perform “The Nutcracker” on stage.

“It has a magic effect on the children who perform,” Whittle said. “Those who have the experience of being in it work much harder, and understand the link between practice and performance.” Students in the school typically practice two nights a week, traveling to Lincoln Center from the tri-state region for instruction. As performances near, practices intensify and extend into the weekends.

“It’s also really special for kids to see other kids and aspire to be like them, instead of just adults,” she said.

For some of this year’s cast members, this is the first time they will perform in front of an audience, the first time they will learn dances of this complexity, and the first time they will work with the acclaimed adult performers at Lincoln Center.

But for many of the kids, it is another first that is worrying them.

“I’m nervous to dance with a boy,” Clara admitted. “I mean, I play with my friends and none of them are boys.”

During one recent rehearsal, Whittle had to keep reminding the visibly anxious children, dancing as couples, to look at the person they were dancing with. And as the boys’ attention wandered, she repeatedly had to stop rehearsal to get them back in position.

“Is there a difference between the two? Yes, there is,” Whittle said. “Girls are a lot easier to teach.

“But, of course, they’ll all be perfect by opening night.”

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