The Claras look as if they’re huddling together in the dance studio for an old-fashioned slumber party in matching pajamas as a late Sunday afternoon gives way to evening.
Yes, the Claras. Sounds like a movie “mean girl” clique, doesn’t it? Far from it. No “Burn Books” found here, but plenty of wooden nutcrackers sparkling with the promise of Christmas magic will.
That’s the point of any “Nutcracker” production, isn’t it? Creating magic and spreading joy — and that’s what The Claras — four in all in the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre’s production — hope to share while practicing their turns and arabesques during practices and this year’s production of “The Nutcracker — A Tale From the Bayou.”
Sundays are when the entire cast comes together for rehearsal in the Dancers’ Workshop, where the ballet company is headquartered. Everything will culminate for four performances on the Raising Cane’s River Center Performing Arts Theater stage on Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 16-17.
The Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra will be providing accompaniment through Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s 1892 score to which The Claras will be dancing their parts.
The Claras are 12-year-old Irelynn Harris, a Parkview Baptist School seventh grader; 14-year-old Rachel Magee, a University High School seventh grader; 14-year-old Gabriela Bautista, a Parkview Baptist School eighth grader; and 13-year-old Sophia Robison, a Westdale Middle School eighth grader.
Each will be wearing Clara’s traditional blue nightgown while dancing the part of the little girl who receives a nutcracker for Christmas at one of the ballet company’s four performances.
“This is the way we’ve been doing it, a different Clara for each performance,” said Molly Buchmann, co-artistic director of the ballet company. “They’ve all performed different roles in past ‘Nutcrackers,’ and they’re all going to be great as Clara.”
The young dancers landed these roles after going up against tough competition in auditions, and though they now share the status of being Clara, they’re definitely not a clique.
They’re simply friends rehearsing together for their dream roles.
“I think that it really helps us out when we rehearse together, because we can what each other is doing,” Bautista said. “We can say, ‘Oh, she did that really good, and I should do that.’ Or if we see something that isn’t so good, we can say, ‘I should try not to do that.'”
The Claras’ goal is to help each other to present the best performance possible. Still, each is a different dancer, so naturally, each performance will have a different personality. The differences might not be something audience members notice, even those who take in the show more than once.
But these small differences are obvious to The Claras, and they’re OK with it.
“Basically, we’re just following each other in rehearsal and watching helps,” Magee said. “But I think it really helps everybody to develop their own sense of artistry. So, if Sophia does something, then I’m not going try to do the same thing as her, because it’s her way. I’m going to try to do it my way so that I look different on stage.”
Magee’s fellow Claras nod in unison. “The Nutcracker” may be a team effort, yet it’s still an individual endeavor, because the stage is filled with artists.
And each member of the cast of some 300 is contributing their artistry to the show.
For now, The Claras are thinking about opening night. Some admit to nerves, but even then, all nervousness disappears the moment they step on stage.
“I’ve never been nervous before,” Harris said. “And I’m not nervous now. ‘The Nutcracker’ has just always been a fun experience for me.”
Harris will be the first Clara to dance at the 2 p.m. performance. Magee will follow in the 6 p.m. show. On Sunday, Bautista will play Clara at 2 p.m. and Robison will take the stage in the final ballet at 6 p.m.
Now, there’s a noted scene that ends the first act that The Claras have yet to rehearse. Fans of this Louisiana-themed “Nutcracker” know to expect a hot air balloon lifting Clara above the stage as she waves to the audience.
The idea is that the balloon is whisking her away to the second act’s magical land of the Azalea Fairy and Snow Queen.
The balloon scene dazzles, but there’s still the fact that Clara is by herself while looming above stage, and these Claras won’t be lifted in its basket until the dress rehearsals in the River Center Theater, which won’t begin until the week preceding performances.
“Now that’s going to be scary,” Irelynn said, giggling to the nods of her co-Claras.
Meanwhile, Leonard Augustus steps into the studio to listen to the conversation. He’s been dancing the role of Uncle Drosselmeyer since 2010.
Who? Drosselmeyer, the one-eyed uncle in a cape who mesmerizes all of the children with his magic tricks at Clara’s family Christmas party — the same uncle who gives Clara a nutcracker for Christmas.
At one point, Augustus, as Drosselmeyer, will lift Clara on his shoulder in one beautiful swoop at the Christmas party. He demonstrates the move at this moment by hoisting up Magee, both smiling into the studio mirror while holding the pose.
Augustus makes it look easy, but he reminds everyone that he’s been playing this part for 14 years.
“I’m getting old,” he says, laughing. “I think I’m the only cast member left who has been in all of the ‘Nutcrackers’ here. I started out as the Nutcracker, then I was an Arabian dancer. Now I’m Drosselmeyer.”
And without Drosselmeyer, Clara’s story would be lost. Especially in the Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre’s version of the ballet, which concludes with a surprise ending. No spoilers here, but here’s a tip: Keep your eyes on Drosselmeyers’ cape in the final scene.