At 9 she dances a timeless role

TAGHKANIC–More than any other ballet, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, a 19th century tale of Christmas fantasy and intrigue, seems to capture the hearts of ballet’s youngest dancers. These children, mostly female, begin to study the art form at an early age after becoming captivated by the Nutcracker’s magic, and for a lucky few who rise to star in local productions, it’s a dream come true.

Nine year old Grace Howard of Churchtown saw her first ballet performance at the age of three at SPAC, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and lobbied her parents for ballet lessons until they consented. This Saturday, November 21, she will dance the in the starring role of Clara in the Albany Berkshire Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker in the 1 p.m. performance at Taconic Hills School in Craryville. A girl from Albany will perform the role at 4 p.m.

 

Although only in fourth grade, Grace has performed supporting roles of party child and tiny clown in the ballet in previous years’ productions.

Her teacher, Debra Jo Hughes, who founded and runs the Hudson Valley Academy of Performing Arts on Route 82 in West Taghkanic, is a dancer whose childhood involvement in Nutcracker performances led her to a successful dance career both as a performer on stage, in films and television, and as a teacher of dance at Columbia University, Long Island University, and Steps on Broadway before she moved to Columbia County and started her own school.

“She’s a joy to work with,” said Ms. Hughes of her student of three years. “She’s focused and takes correction well and has a lot of potential. She’s a beautiful dancer who has the talent, the desire to dance, and the drive.”

At class with Ms. Hughes last month, one of the two she attends in Taghkanic each week, Grace is all energy and supple movement, concentration, poise and stage presence. Starting to practice before the class had even begun, she communicates her enthusiasm.

An observer soon sees that ballet is not just a physical challenge requiring mastery of positions and coordination of transitions from one position to another; the choreography demands that students remember numerous routines in French, a mental task that requires a high degree of concentration and recall.

“Grace has come so far under Debra’s instruction,” says Grace’s mother, Cybel Howard, who appreciates the fact that Ms. Hughes offers serious instruction to her students of every age, which the students can build on as they progress. Ms. Howard, who teaches business courses at Taconic Hills High School, and her husband, Neil, principal of the Taconic Hills Middle School, have cheerfully stepped up to the job of chauffeur, ferrying Grace to and from classes and rehearsals here and in Albany.

Last Sunday Grace was scheduled to go to Albany for the dress rehearsal, attended by Claras from all 17 performances of the production, which will travel between November 21 and December 22 to locations including Lebanon, NH, Burlington, Vt., Andover, Pittsfield and Springfield, Mass., ending up in Albany at the Egg to end its run. The corps and principal dancers will dance the same rolls in each performance, but each performance will have a different Clara.

“Grace auditioned for a part of a party child but they called her back in and auditioned her for Clara. It’s pretty exceptional that we have a local student in this role,” said Ms. Howard, whose younger daughter, Clare, will also dance in the performance as a Polschinelle, one of the little clowns who appear from under Mother Ginger’s enormous skirt.

When the curtain rises Saturday, all of the preparation will come together as finished artifice, all the work on form, technique, and routine, flavored with the spark of the individual dancer’s expression–that intangible, individual magic quality of being in the moment as that character–that each performer brings in her own way to the repertoire, breathing life into it once again.

“She has a lovely personality that will come out,” Madeline Cantarella Culpo, artistic director of the ballet company, said of Grace. Miss Madeline, as she is fondly called by her dancers, founded her school in the 1970s and the professional dance company of the Albany Berkshire Ballet the following decade. She says she is proud that so many of the principal dancers in the Nutcracker are home grown and that hers is one of the few regional companies to travel.

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