Four Local Teens to Star as Clara in the Washington Ballet's ‘Nutcracker'

Talia Startsman, 16, will perform the role of Clara on opening night at the Warner Theatre.
Talia Startsman, 16, will perform the role of Clara on opening night at the Warner Theatre. (By Stephen Baranovics -- Washington Ballet)
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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Most kids look forward to a break from school during the holidays. (Time to sleep in and stay up late!) For four girls in the D.C. area, the holidays may mean no school, but they definitely don't mean rest.

"I don't think a lot of people understand ballet is really quite difficult. It is a lot of hard work and effort," said Isha McLennan, 14, of Bethesda, who will dance the lead role of Clara for the first time in the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" this month.

In the show, Clara receives for Christmas a nutcracker doll that comes to life and defends her against an army of mice. The Nutcracker then turns into a prince and travels with Clara to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Isha and three other girls (Brooke Kettler, 16, of Washington; Sarah Mackay, 15, of Alexandria; and Talia Startsman, 16, of Leesburg) will share the role, each performing Clara eight times during the run. Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, a Russian, wrote the music for the ballet, which was first performed in 1892. The Washington Ballet's version is set in the nation's capital and stars George Washington as the Nutcracker.

Most of the girls have worked their way up in the cast, dancing smaller roles for years before finally getting Clara. ("Since I was little, I wanted to be Clara," Sarah said.) To prepare for such an important part, the teens started rehearsing in October, every day after school for four hours and then eight hours each on Saturdays and Sundays.

"It's very taxing, emotionally, mentally and physically," said Brooke, who began dancing when she was 3. The girls have to know how to move and when to move, down to the exact beat. That takes focus, Sarah said. "It's challenging, but people don't know that. That's kind of the most beautiful part about it. When it's done at its best, it looks really pretty and simple, even though it's really difficult."

The girls dance year-round, not just at Christmastime. "It's sort of like I have two jobs," Brooke said. "I go to school, and then I go to dance."

These girls have big dreams of dancing professionally, so they know they have to work hard. Plus, they love it.

"I definitely love performing, being out there and seeing everybody watching you," Isha said.

"It's like acting, but you don't have to talk. People just know from your movements what you're saying," Sarah said.

And here's a little advice for aspiring Claras from Talia, who will perform opening night: "Work very hard and never limit [yourself]. . . . Keep the possibilities open. Have a positive mind-set and just go for it."

-- Moira E. McLaughlin

If You Go WHAT: The Washington Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" WHEN: Dec. 11-28 WHERE: Warner Theatre, 13th and E streets NW COST: Tickets are $29-$93. LENGTH: The show lasts about two hours, including a 15-minute intermission. INFO: Visit http://www.warnertheatre.com/calendar.asp or call 202-397-7328. ETC: For information on other local productions of "The Nutcracker," go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/holidayguide.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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