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Los Altos dancers leap into the Nutcracker season

Los Altos dancers leap into the Nutcracker season

November 7, 2019


This fall, the Pacific Ballet Academy is holding its 29th annual performance of “The Nutcracker,” starring freshmen Stella James (Clara) and Susan Clay (Bon-Bon), as well as seniors Catherine McGrath (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Megan Liu (Sugar Plum Fairy). There will be showings at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts on Friday, November 22, Saturday, November 23 and Sunday, 24, featuring several different casts.

Stella James (Clara)

Courtesy Stella James

Because of the Nutcracker’s timelessness, it is often the first play children see and perform in. When freshman Stella James saw the Nutcracker for the first time, she fell in love with the Sugar Plum Fairy. From that point forward, Stella set her sights on one day dancing that very role.

Stella is well on her way to her goal, with 12 years of dance experience and five years of participation in the Pacific Ballet Academy’s Nutcracker. This year, Stella is playing five different roles, the most notable of which is Clara, the main character.

Stella is excited for the role because it gives her the opportunity to challenge herself and grow as a dancer.

“As Clara, you get to perform some of the most fun dances with some of the best choreography,” Stella said.

This role also lets Stella flex her theatrical muscles. In addition to ballet, Stella started acting in musicals and plays in second grade. Since then, she has performed a variety of roles, including Brooke Whyndam in “Legally Blonde,” Tinker Bell in “Peter Pan” and the Evil Stepmother in “Cinderella.”

“The main thing that I like about acting is that you are able to portray different characters,” Stella said. “After doing so much theater, I feel like I have become better at showing emotion and using my face while dancing. I connect my dancing with emotions more than I think would if I hadn’t done acting.”

Hours of practice and years of refining her skills culminate in her performances, which have always been a highlight for her.

“I really love doing it, it’s very fun,” Stella said. “Even though it’s hard sometimes, I really like the artistry of [ballet] and how you can express yourself, through the stories and steps you are performing.”

Susan Clay (Bon-Bon)

Courtesy Pacific Ballet Academy

Although she wouldn’t describe herself as shy, freshman Susan Clay is more reserved and introspective than most in her grade.

“I’m kind of quiet,” Susan said. “I tend to overanalyze things, and social situations tend to make me either confused or nervous.”

For Susan, ballet has been important in helping her make friends and build confidence. Some of her closest friendships have formed in the ballet studio.

“A lot of people who get to a certain level in ballet have a certain mindset concerning work ethic, and when you are around the same people so much, you [find that you] have a lot in common,” Susan said.

Surrounding herself with like-minded peers, Susan is able to come out of her shell when she dances.

“I really like ballet because music makes me really excited,” Susan said. “Ballet isn’t weird—it’s cool. When you are in a ballet you are not yourself, you are the character you are portraying. By showing emotion through your character, you can connect with the audience without feeling as though you are making yourself vulnerable.”

Although ballet was originally just a way to let out her energy when she was younger, as Susan changed over the years, so has her relationship with ballet. Now, she is able to appreciate ballet as an art and manifest the emotions she feels from music through her dance.

“[Music] allows you to feel things you might not feel otherwise,” Susan said. “It is really cool because it allows you to feel what the composer is writing, but in ballet you get to express that with yourself.”

Like many other dancers, ballet take up a lot of Susan’s time every week. But instead of viewing them as a burden, Susan says it’s the opposite.

“When you’re performing, it allows you to get caught up in the moment,” Susan said. “You forget about what you’re stressed about and just enjoy the art.”

Catherine McGrath (Sugar Plum Fairy)

Courtesy Catherine McGrath

Senior Catherine McGrath’s decade-long dance career started in second grade, dancing in the living room with her mom and her friends.

“My mom is definitely the reason I started dancing,” Catherine said. “She did ballet when she was younger, and she had these little classes for my friends and me at our house.”

In the eyes of Catherine’s second-grade-self, her mother was, as most mothers are, a luminary. The passion and joy that she put into teaching dance imbibed Catherine with the inspiration she needed to continue a lifelong journey.

“She always had so much fun when she was teaching our classes, and she would always encourage me,” Catherine said. “She puts in a lot of time, too, and it’s really fun for both of us.”

This year, Catherine is playing the iconic role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” for the first time, among other roles. As this is one of the most technically challenging roles in the ballet, Catherine feels like she has big shoes to fill.

“When I was little I always looked up to the people who played the [Sugar Plum Fairy],” Catherine said. “It’s a lot to live up to, because several of my teachers and older mentors whom I was friends with have danced the role, but I’m really excited.”

Although she is going off to college next year, she doesn’t plan on letting go of dance any time soon. One route for this is teaching: Though she was unsuccessful in convincing her younger brother to join her, she found fulfillment in teaching other younger students the basics of ballet.

“I used to help out with classes a lot when I was younger,” Catherine said. “It’s definitely fun to be around the kids and see them trying to learn things that seem so simple to me. It’s just really fun to see how they look up to us as teachers. We’re what they’re striving for.”

Megan Liu (Sugar Plum Fairy)

Courtesy Megan Liu

Ballet is the gift that keeps on giving for senior Megan Liu. From allowing her to travel the world to providing respite in the midst of life’s inundating stressors, ballet has been with Megan since she was four years old.

“I was initially put into dance by my mom since I always seemed to be jumping around,” Megan said. “Since then, I’ve stayed in ballet because of the friends I’ve made and the experiences I’ve had.”

With numerous extracurriculars including debate, TEDxLAHS and Blue Ocean Entrepreneurship, Megan uses ballet has become an invaluable way for her to de-stress.

“Ballet has always felt like an escape from all the other stressors since it’s a place where I can only focus on one thing,” Megan said. “Even if it means that I lose out on time for other things, it’s just a really great experience to be in the studio and to really work that hard and to see results.”

Throughout her years of training, Megan has also been able to build some of her strongest and closest relationships.

“My closest friends are definitely in ballet because we share the same passion and spend so much time together, whether it be during class or rehearsals,” Megan said. “We’ve also definitely suffered together, which always brings us closer.”

In addition to friendships, ballet has also given Megan international opportunities to perfect her craft.

“I participated in a summer program with the Estonian National Ballet and a bunch of professional and pre-professional dancers from across the world to prepare a two-hour-long gala in three weeks,” Megan said. “It was a great opportunity to rehearse and perform in a professional setting.”

As such, it’s no surprise that Megan is playing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy again. But even after having accomplished so much in the dance world, the Pacific Ballet Academy’s annual Nutcracker performance is still special.

“It’s sort of a staple in my life now,” Megan said.

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