Clara Ruf-Maldonado as Marie, and Austin Bachman as the Nutcracker Prince in George Balanchines 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, shes going to be the star.
Clara says she went into the schools Nutcracker auditions hesitantly. She knew the most coveted of all parts for the schools girls was Marie, one of the shows most visible characters who remains on stage for nearly the entire production.
I kept telling my mom, Oh yeah, Im 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 years 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 childrens casts which alternate performances during the productions 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. Its fun and its very magical, and I like things that are magical. Im really excited.
In some ways, being chosen to play Marieor the prince, in the case of the boysis the most prestigious accomplishment a dancer of Claras 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 schools 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 ETCs 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 Childrens Ballet Mistress for New York City Ballet, charged with casting, teaching, and rehearsing the childrens 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 years Maries.
Whittle said she knew Clara was a likely candidate long before the auditions.
Shes 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, Claras 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.
Its 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 years 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.
Im 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, theyll all be perfect by opening night.