An abundance of Claras: Meet the dancers behind The Nutcracker's iconic role

The Nutcracker is as much a holiday tradition as cookie baking, colorful decorations and gift giving. This year, after months of hard work and a demanding rehearsal schedule, more than two dozen young ladies in the area are fulfilling their dream to play the ballet’s central role of Clara.

The two-act ballet, based on a story by E.T.A Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and the King of Mice, follows the whimsical and magical dream of a young girl, Clara, who receives a nutcracker as a gift during an elegant Christmas Eve party her parents host. In her dreams, her nutcracker becomes a handsome prince who battles the Mouse King and leads her to the Land of Sweets, where she meets the Sugar Plum Fairy.

There are at well over a dozen stagings of the Nutcracker across the state and the dancers chosen to portray Clara, range in age from 9 to 19. The common thread uniting all is an abiding passion for the art of dance.

Meet the Claras

Isabella Purpora, a senior at Cheshire High School, is reprising her role for the Cecchetti Ballet Theatre’s performances in Hamden, talked about the iconic appeal of Clara to fans young and old. “My favorite part of performing the role of Clara has to be when the faces of children in the cast light up when they see me. I remember when I was their age, I used to look up to Clara and dance the part at home until my feet would hurt,” she said.

Claire Wilkinson, 13, of Ridgefield, has been dancing ballet for 10 years. “I have been in ‘Nuts About The Nutcracker’ for eight years and as Clara for two years. Dancing as Clara, I have a great joy for performing as I am the one who is involved in almost every scene and every dance,” Wilkinson said.

Dancing since age 4, Taylor Smooke, 19, of Woodbridge, is no stranger to the Nutcracker, having appeared in it over ten times, but this year she is making her debut as Clara with the Woodbury Ballet. “I am most looking forward to the actual performances. The raw uninhibited energy as a dancer and actor on stage is incredibly exhilarating,” Smooke said. “The most challenging aspect of rehearsals for me is facially emoting. I want to make sure I convey genuine emotions to the audience as much as possible.”

Hadley Boguniecki, 14, of Orange, who has been dancing ballet for 11 years, is marking her fifth year in the Nutcracker. Playing Clara for the 20th anniversary Nutcracker show by the New England Ballet Company in Bridgeport, she is eager to put on her Clara dress and have her hair done. “I am most looking forward to the rush in my stomach before I go on stage and finally realizing my goal of performing Clara,” Boguniecki said. Also portraying Clara for the New England Ballet Company is Chynna Jacobs, 14, of Cheshire, who has been dancing for 12 years. She is excited to transform into Clara. “What I am most looking forward to about dancing as Clara is being able to express a variety of emotions as I become this character on stage,” she said.

Camryn Ray, 11, of Wilton, is dancing in her second Nutcracker, for the Conservatory of Dance in Wilton. “I’m most looking forward to the party scene because I get to act a lot and some of my favorite parts in the story happen during the party scene.”

Catherine Bianchi, 11, of North Haven, is one of two dancers playing Clara for the New Haven Ballet and it will be her fifth time in this show. “I am most looking forward to performing the ‘Dream Scene’ onstage,” she said. Mairead Rader, 11, of Guilford, who has been dancing ballet for eight years, is sharing the role with Bianchi. She said she can’t wait to dance with her friends and “meet the dancer cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy [usually a dancer from the American Ballet Theater]. This is such an amazing opportunity!”

Asked what the best part of this role is, the girls shared a wide range of answers from mastering the choreography to being with their friends. “Clara is my favorite role in the show because my passion for the art of ballet and acting through expression can be combined,” Purpora said. “I love becoming the character, and being able to share the magic with the audience.”

Anya Frey, 11, of Fairfield, who shares the role at Connecticut Dance School in Fairfield with Julia Ortiz, also 11, of Bridgeport, said she was excited to be on stage with so many people watching. “The best part is the party scene. I’ve watched it for years and it’s so exciting to finally be in it,” Frey said.

Ortiz said the best part was getting to see most of the performances on stage. “Before I learned the routines, I thought they were very fast, but since rehearsals they are now much easier.”

Colleen Brereton, 17, Darien, a dancer since age 3 and 11-year veteran of Nutcracker shows, found learning to dance as part of a pair challenging. She will play Clara in the New England Academy of Dance’s show, which is accompanied by the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra. “The hardest thing about this role is working on dancing with my partner, the Nutcracker, played by professional dancer, Juan David Camargo. I have not done much partnering in live performance before but working with him has been such an amazing and educational experience.”

Jacobs said being able to do all the different partnering lifts is the best thing about being Clara and credits the training from her pas de deux class with preparing her. “It's very exciting to get a chance to perform them!”

“Rehearsing the Dream Scene with my teacher, who is playing the role of Drosselmeyer. It is a very theatrical and mystical scene. It is probably the most dramatic and I love being dramatic,” Rader said. “I didn’t know I was going to be was a real surprise when we first rehearsed it. I was both scared and excited at the same time.”

Any other surprises?

“The biggest surprise has been how fast it’s gone by. This is definitely a year that I don’t want to end,” said Taegan Smith, 14, of Newtown, who started dancing at age 2 and this year is dancing as Clara for both the Danbury Music Centre’s edition of the Nutcracker, in its 50th anniversary this year, and also for the Newtown Centre of Classical Ballet & Voice.

For some dancers, there were physical surprises. Anya said, “the costume is surprisingly hot and heavy,” while Chloe Bortel, 11, Darien, who debuts as Clara for the Darien Arts Center, said, “A new surprise has been how quickly I wear out my pointe shoes when rehearsing so much!”

Sophia Molnar, 15, Trumbull, is one of two girls playing Clara for the Rockwell Dance Center in Trumbull. “There are always surprises in the performances every year to make each production unique while keeping to the tradition of the ballet that everyone loves.”

Asked about challenges playing this role, the girls cited everything from mastering technique and the lifts to artistry. “The hardest thing is remembering the counts and not going too fast,” said Olivia Kross, 9, Weston, who has been dancing for six years. She will play Clara in Connecticut Theater Dance’s production in Westport. Likewise, Boguniecki said, “The hardest thing about being Clara has definitely been learning all the new choreography in very little time and being expected to get it perfectly is a huge responsibility.”

“My height is sometimes difficult because I have to partner with the Nutcracker Prince. Since I am wearing pointe shoes, they make me close to 6 feet tall, which makes partnering very challenging but we work together and it has been lots of fun,” said Caroline Marchetti, 14, Trumbull, who has been dancing ballet since age 2 ½ and is sharing the role of Clara for the Rockwell Dance Center with Molnar.

Natalie Gilbert, 12, Redding, a veteran of eight previous Nutcracker shows, will play Clara for the Wilton Dance Studio. “The hardest thing about being in this role was just getting the part! Now that we’re rehearsing, one thing that’s difficult is remembering to do all the little details like hand gestures and how to walk to a specific place.”

“There have been long rehearsals but I love it all,” said Smith while Smooke said the most challenging part of rehearsals was facially emoting. “I want to make sure I convey genuine emotions to the audience as much as possible.” Bortel said the hardest thing has been the adjustment to performing on pointe. “I have only been on pointe for a year,” she explained.

Taelyn Richards, 11, Darien, who is also Clara for the Darien Arts Center, said, “The hardest thing about this role is dancing with a partner for the first time. It surprised me how hard it is to communicate with each other and know what each other is doing!”

Bianchi said, “I have dreamed of playing the role of Clara since I was a level one student. I am very excited to be in two Saturday shows this year and I can’t wait for my friends and family to see me perform.” Echoing her sentiments, Kross said, “It is so fun and so much responsibility but I'm excited about the opportunity.” Renee Cherry, 11, Ridgefield, who has been doing ballet for eight years, is dancing in her sixth Nutcracker but her first as Clara, for the Ridgefield School of Dance. She said, “I have seen the Nutcracker a lot and watched as others have danced the role of Clara. I always wanted to dance that role but never expected it to be me. It is a dream come true.”

The girls explained how each is making this well-known role her own. “Every Clara is different in our show because they all have different personalities when they are acting,” said Gilbert. “You don’t notice it until you watch them on stage. I really want people to feel like they’re inside the story and to connect with Clara’s emotions throughout all the scenes. I want them to feel like they are joining Clara on her journey throughout the show.”

Ray said, “I’m trying to make the role of Clara my own by putting some of my personality into the character.”

Richards said, “Even if they're a dancer or not, I believe that everyone always projects a bit of themselves while performing. In my case, I will project myself through Clara by acting how I would really act if my Nutcracker magically came to life, or if the Sugar Plum Fairy appeared before my eyes.”

Marchetti said facial expressions are key. “I am adding my own style by acting the part through facial expressions. I also got to choose some movements that worked for me personally and it helped me take ownership over the character’s role.”

Brereton said she is working on her acting to make the connection between the Nutcracker prince and Clara seem authentic. “I am also really focusing on the shift in emotion that experiences when she thinks the Nutcracker is dead to the moment she realizes he is alive. In my opinion, this shift sets the Nutcracker ballet on the happy and light-hearted journey that encompasses the snow scene and the entirety of Act II.”

Cherry added, “I've always loved the story of the Nutcracker, and I'm having fun learning how to bring Clara to life! Watching last year's (Ridgefield School of Dance) Nutcracker, and practicing a lot at home has really helped me be comfortable in the role and be more expressive.”

The best part of being in the Nutcracker are the rehearsals, Wilkinson said. “I get to come every Sunday and be with my friends and I enjoy being with all of the different age groups. I also consider it to be very special that the performance is for charity. It really matters that our dancing will help others.,” she added.

Molnar’s favorite part in dancing in her seventh appearance in the Nutcracker is getting to act out the story in ballet and the team aspect. “The best thing by far has been working with my instructors and other dancers in the ballet, also getting to partner and being able to perform on pointe.”

Ortiz perhaps summed up the show’s appeal the best when she said, “The Nutcracker has become one of my favorite things about the holiday season.”

To find a show check the Dance listing under Lively Arts.