Sarah Jessica Parker - The Nutcracker Mouse Who Made The Biggest Roar
 
They call her Clara. And for every young girl with the slightest interest in ballet, Clara — she’s the central character in The Nutcracker — is the role to aspire to.
 
Since the Cincinnati Ballet began performing The Nutcracker in 1974, several hundred dancers have performed major roles in the holiday favorite. And more than 1,000 children have appeared as everything from tiny mice to soldiers to gingerbread people.
 
But young Claras? There have probably been no more than 20. You see, over the course of the past 35 years the Cincinnati Ballet has performed five completely different versions of The Nutcracker. Only three of the five versions featured Clara played by an adolescent girl. The other two — including the present production — have an adult in the role.
 
And that’s unfortunate, because The Nutcracker is the coming-of-age story of a young girl. Having a grown-up in the role dilutes the story’s impact.
 
Besides, kids love stories where another kid saves the day. Seeing a young Clara is enormously empowering, especially to other girls. One moment, she’s a proper little child, curtsying and playing nice. The next, she’s a ferocious force of nature battling the Mouse King. This may be a fantasy, but those qualities are familiar to any parent who’s raised a daughter.
 
Being Clara brings a measure of stardom. But it also means enormous responsibility. Remember, these girls — none of them beyond middle school age — carry much of the weight of a multimillion-dollar stage production. Being Clara demands talent, of course. But it also calls for discipline and focus and tenacity.
 
On this 35th anniversary of The Nutcracker in Cincinnati, we decided to go back and visit some of the girls — now women — who performed the role when they were 12 or 13.
 
They often had far more impact than they ever imagined. Leah Cardi first appeared in The Nutcracker in 1995. Three years later, she would be Clara. But that first year she had just a small role in the opening party scene.
 
“We really looked up to the girl who played Clara,” recalls Cardi, a senior psychology major at Emory University in Atlanta. “I thought she was so cool and so old. And she was really, really sweet to us. I think all the girls in the party scene thought it would be great to be in her place one day.”
 
For the record, that “old” dancer, Teresa Riemer, was all of 13 at the time.
 
The Claras we spoke with have taken different paths. Some are still involved with dance. Others are more consumed by parenting. They range in age from 22 to 46. But for every one of them, being Clara proved more than a chance to dance alone onstage. It offered life lessons every bit as profound as those lived out by the character they portrayed onstage.
 
The Cincinnati Ballet performs The Nutcracker at the Aronoff Center’s Procter & Gamble Hall Dec. 12-27. Tickets are $10-$65 and available at (513) 621-2787 or www. cincinnatiballet.com.


 
Tina DeLeoneTina deleone
1976
Age: 46 Lives in: Madisonville
Today: Graphic artist


Tina DeLeone’s father, Carmon DeLeone, has been musical director of the Cincinnati Ballet since she was 1 year old. So there was a sense of inevitability when she became the company’s second Clara.

“It was an enormous deal among my friends,” DeLeone says. “You got pushed around in a little sleigh. Everybody bowed to you. It was the high point of my career at that point.”

She became a full-fledged company member at the age of 15. From the outside, it looked like a charmed life. “But I would come home every day and cry all night,” DeLeone recalls.

Soon she moved to Chicago and joined the company of jazz dance master Gus Giordano, a path that would include dancing for Bob Fosse and in several tours and Broadway shows including Dancin’, Jerome Robbins’ Broadway and Guys and Dolls.

“Dancing is the only thing I ever wanted to do,” says DeLeone, who left dancing after a pair of knee surgeries in the late 1990s and retrained as a graphic artist. “When I was dancing, it was everything to me. It was my soul.


 
Holly Hardin HollidayHolly holliday
1981-1982
Age: 38 Lives in: Milford
Today: Mother of four

Holly Hardin was up every day at 5 so her mother could drive her from their Morrow home to Milford. There, Holly hopped a bus to Downtown and the School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

It was grueling, but Hardin — now Holly Holliday — has no regrets. “I had experiences that other kids who grew up in Morrow didn’t have. That was good and bad. High school football games? What are those? I had no idea because I was in class or rehearsal. But all in all, I’m glad I had those experiences.”

In ninth grade, she and her mother moved to New York so she could study at the School of American Ballet. When injuries and illness ended her hopes there, she regrouped and joined the Miami City Ballet. Two years later, she was back to join the Cincinnati Ballet, but ended up in nursing school instead.

Although she dances occasionally, none of her children do. “I’m not going to push them. It’s not worth it. If my kids don’t love it, they’re not going to do it.”
 


Meghan Condorodis ShimalaMeghan shimala
1982-1983
Age: 38 Lives in: Loveland
Today: Mother of two, teaches classes at Delta 1018 Fitness Center, Mount Lookout

‘What a gift it was to dance Clara,” says Meghan Shimala. “Getting to that point gave me so much confidence, both in my dance career and in everything I’ve done since.”

Shimala danced for several more years after Clara, attending summer programs in New York and San Francisco. She spent a year as an apprentice with the Cincinnati Ballet after graduating from Indian Hill High School. But she left the company — “that was moderately heartbreaking” — and transferred to Miami University to prepare for a career in human resources. She would go on to work briefly for Lazarus before spending several years at Western-Southern.

“Dancing made me a goal-oriented person. Some of that was probably in me already. But I wasn’t your normal teenager. I drove myself. Probably a little too hard, to be honest. But I loved it. And I’m still a very disciplined person.

“Clara was wonderful. But studying ballet was rewarding all on its own. It helped me understand everything you have to go through to get what you want. I was fortunate to learn that early in my life.”
 


”Victoria Morgan: Ballet’s Director Was in Nutcracker Herself
“Dance was a place where I could go and feel I was valued and in control,” says Victoria Morgan, now in her 11th season as the artistic director of the Cincinnati Ballet.

As a kid growing up in Bountiful, Utah, she was achingly shy. “But with dance, I was able to express myself in a way that didn’t require words. I felt comfortable without having to be very social. Dance came to my rescue. Dance taught me my own value.”

But The Nutcracker could have undermined her future career.

Back in 1974, the 12-year-old Morgan was one of two girls picked to dance the role of Clara with Ballet West in Salt Lake City. “I was completely psyched,” says Morgan.

But her jubilance was soon undone when ballet mistress Bené Arnold (now head of the University of Utah dance program) told Morgan there was a problem. “Bené pulled me aside and said ‘We can’t see your smile — you’ve got all those braces on your teeth. It’s not going to work.’ I was devastated.”

Morgan’s father called the family orthodontist and asked about removing her top braces for the two weeks of performances. That’s common today, but in 1974 it was unheard of. Fortunately, Morgan’s orthodontist came through. She returned to rehearsal and danced the role on opening night. “It saved my life,” she recalls. “And though I didn’t know it at the time, it probably saved my career.”


Melissa “Misse” AllenMelissa allen
1984
Age: 37 Lives in: Milford
Today: Part-time Swing Ballerina for the national tour of The Phantom of the Opera


Melissa Allen’s favorite part of The Nutcracker was just before the magic Christmas Tree grows to monumental proportions.
“You’re on the stage by yourself and you dance this huge circle.” On the way around the stage, Clara does eight leaps and eight airborne turns. “It was exhausting. You could almost feel your lungs burn. But it was exhilarating.”

Allen joined the Cincinnati Ballet at the age of 16. She served under five artistic directors during eight chaotic years. In typical fashion, she is stoic about the time: “I weathered the storm well.”

After a stint with the Tulsa Ballet and an injury that forced her to miss most ballet companies’ auditions, she tried her hand at Broadway. She auditioned for
The Phantom of the Opera
and got in, first in the Broadway production, later in the national tour.

During an early morning radio interview when the show was in Cincinnati, a friend from elementary school heard her. Through her parents, he was able to get in touch with Allen.

“He had always been my favorite and sweetest boy in class. And the smartest one, too.”

Six months later, they began dating. Two years after that, they were married.

Though she occasionally returns to Phantom as a short-term substitute, Allen is now officially off the road.

“Somehow, I no longer enjoy being away from home anymore.”
 


Teresa RiemerTeresa riemer
1995-1996
Age: 25 Lives in: Cincinnati/Louisville
Today: Physical therapist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital


Teresa Riemer was one of the first of the new generation of Cincinnati Ballet Claras. Her roots were in competitive dance, which has a harder, higher impact element. Small wonder then that she began experiencing occasional injuries by the time she performed Clara.

During her first year, she toured with the company to other states. “It was fascinating to see what grown-up dancers go through. Even then I was looking at who was injured.”

By 15, she grew more intrigued with physical therapy, but didn’t abandon dance. She performed as part of the University of Kentucky’s national champion dance team. Today she teaches exercise and Pilates classes at Studio Dee Dance & Aerobic Studio in Northern Kentucky. With her colleague, Aly Filipa, she’s studying the effects ofstrength training on young dancers, in hopes of reducing injuries. “Performing in Rupp Arena in front of 20,000 people was amazing. But I have other loves in my life now,” she says, alluding to her September marriage to physical therapist Lee Smith.
 


Leah CardiLeah cardi
1998
Age: 22 Lives in: Atlanta
Today: Senior at Emory University, psychology major


‘It’s not something we ever admitted out loud,” Leah Cardi says. “But every girl in The Nutcracker was secretly hoping she’d have a chance to be Clara.”

Finally, here she was, performing that coveted role. And she wasn’t even halfway through sixth grade. It was the first time she had ever danced alone on the stage. “I knew it was a big responsibility,” Cardi remembers, “but I wasn’t ever intimidated by it. I think it’s because the older dancers were so supportive. It’s only now that I realize how generous they were being to me.”

Cardi graduates from college this year. She isn’t sure what’s next. A year off from school, probably. And an internship in some health-related field. She doesn’t dance anymore.

“I haven’t found anything that I’ve been totally invested in since dance. I used to be really scared that I didn’t know what I wanted to do. But I’m more open to possibilities now. I’m more excited about what’s to come rather than being scared by it.”



Eliza Kelly-SwiftEliza kelley swift
1999
Age: 22 Lives in: New Haven, Conn.
Today: Senior at Yale University, biochemistry major


‘I’ve tried to walk away from dance a couple of times,” Eliza Kelly-Swift says. “It just doesn’t work. Dance is my language. I feel more alive when I’m dancing than when I’m not.”
Dance wasn’t an intellectual pursuit for her back when she danced Clara. She had already spent five years working her way through the ranks of children’s roles in The Nutcracker.

“If you want to know the truth, the thing I’ll always remember about the day I got Clara was that it was the day our hamster died.”

While at Yale, though, dance has become something very different for her. During her sophomore year, she took a course in Dance Theater. It was a revelation.

“We went into a lot of choreographic theory. The idea of dance as an intellectual exercise was a new to me. I’d always considered the physicality. But to have the mind involved as fully as the body was very interesting.”

As a member of YaleDancers, she’s expected to choreograph as well as perform. And it has proven an eye-opening exercise.

She regularly travels into New York City to take classes. And when she graduates next spring?

“I don’t know what will happen. Not yet, anyway. We’ll play it by ear.”“Dance is my language. I feel more alive when I’m dancing than when I’m not. ”