In ballet, there are certain iconic, career-making lead roles dancers start dreaming of performing the moment they first slip on pointe shoes. Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet, is one such part. So, too, is the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

In ballet, there are certain iconic, career-making lead roles dancers start dreaming of performing the moment they first slip on pointe shoes. Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet, is one such part. So, too, is the dual role of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake.

And, of course, Clara in Nutcracker.

<p>DAVID COOPER PHOTO RWB Company Nutcracker - 2018</p>

DAVID COOPER PHOTO RWB Company Nutcracker - 2018

Seeing the Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s uniquely Canadian take on the Christmastime classic, choreographed by Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon to Tchaikovsky’s singular score, is a holiday tradition for generations of Winnipeg families.

But performing in the coveted role of Clara — the girl who dreams of becoming a ballerina and dancing with her Nutcracker prince — is also a storied tradition. The role of Young Clara offers professional division students the chance to perform onstage with the company, while grown-up Clara is a role in which many dancers make their principal role debut.

<p>Isabelle Ly photo Adult Clara – Elizabeth Lamont, Company artist - 2019</p>

Isabelle Ly photo Adult Clara – Elizabeth Lamont, Company artist - 2019

It was for RWB soloist Elizabeth Lamont in 2013, along with that of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale just months earlier, while she was still in the corps de ballet. (Lamont also was Young Clara back in 2005, and was actually among the subjects of a documentary about who would land the role.)

She was promoted to second soloist shortly thereafter. "It was a really awesome milestone for me," she says.

Lamont will be reprising her role as Clara in this month’s run of Nutcracker, which returns to the Centennial Concert Hall stage after a two-year pandemic-related absence.

<p>David Cooper Photo Young Clara – Elizabeth Lamont, Ballet Academic Program student - Photo by David Cooper, 2006</p>

David Cooper Photo Young Clara – Elizabeth Lamont, Ballet Academic Program student - Photo by David Cooper, 2006

"For me, Nutcracker has always been a time of firsts," Lamont says, "so it’s kind of cool to come back to it again and be like, ‘Oh, again, this is the first full-length lead classical ballet that I’m dancing again, after the pandemic.’ And it was the first full-length classical that I premièred, ever. And the same thing with being Young Clara, that was the first time that I’d ever done a full-length, classical ballet with the company. 

"It’s been a first throughout my career, which has been really cool. So revisiting it again, it’s been wonderful."

<p>DAVID COOPER PHOTO </p><p>Katie Simpson (Young Clara), with Serena Sanford and company artist Liam Caines.</p>

DAVID COOPER PHOTO

Katie Simpson (Young Clara), with Serena Sanford and company artist Liam Caines.

Corps de ballet member Katie Simpson is a former Young Clara who remembers, acutely, the nerves and excitement of taking the stage with the big kids, so to speak, while she was a student at the RWB School. Simpson was promoted to the corps de ballet in 2020; the principal role of Clara is still on her wishlist.

<p>Samanta Katz photo </p><p>Emilie Lewis as Young Clara and Michel Lavoie as Julien in The Nutcracker.</p>

Samanta Katz photo

Emilie Lewis as Young Clara and Michel Lavoie as Julien in The Nutcracker.

‘It’s just one of those roles that you’ve looked up to ever since you were little," Simpson says. "You dream of doing it one day, and through a Nutcracker season we have our own debuts doing soloist roles, but there’s still a part of us that hopes, one day, we can also have a story like that and debut Clara to complete the circle of Little Clara to Big Clara. It’s a little girl’s dream, really."

Emilie Lewis joined the RWB as an apprentice during the pandemic and was promoted to the corps de ballet this year. She, too, is a former Young Clara who has designs on one day dancing in the principal role.

"It’s very technical, and it’s a really good testing ground to move forward," Lewis says of Clara. "So if you want to do Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, it’s a stable place to start. (Clara) is very difficult, but it’s a good place to see what you want to be like in these lead roles. And it’s just a beautiful role."

<p>Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Taisi Tollasepp Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker, Opening night, Centennial Concert Hall. December 19, 2018.</p>

Daniel Crump / Winnipeg Free Press Taisi Tollasepp Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker, Opening night, Centennial Concert Hall. December 19, 2018.

Toronto’s Taisi Tollasepp, 17, who is a returning Level 7 Professional Division student, danced Young Clara in 2018. "It was such an amazing experience being onstage with the company and being in the rehearsal process and learning everything," she says. Precision and artistry, she says, is a huge part of this role; after all, Clara herself is training to be a ballet dancer.

Hannah Hunter, 13, a returning Level 4 Professional Division student who comes to the RWB School from Penticton, B.C., and Ava Wease, 14, a new Level 4 Professional Division student who comes from Fisherville, Va., will be this season’s Young Claras and they couldn’t be more excited. And nervous. But mostly excited.

Both students found out they got the role from their moms.

"I was eating dinner and my mom called me and told me and I got a little too excited," Hunter says with a laugh. "The whole cafeteria found out really fast."

<p>Kendra Woo photo Hannah Hunter, left, and Ava Wease</p>

Kendra Woo photo Hannah Hunter, left, and Ava Wease

Hunter and Wease, point out that what makes this role so appealing is the fact they can see themselves in Young Clara: she’s an aspiring dancer, about their age. Watching grown-up Clara dance, then, isn’t just a glimpse into a possible future for the character. It’s one for them, too.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s Nutcracker runs Dec. 18-28 at the Centennial Concert Hall. Tickets are available at rwb.org.

jen.zoratti@winnipegfreepress.com

Twitter: @JenZoratti

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Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.