By Annette Hinkle
When Tchaikovsky’s ballet “The Nutcracker” premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, the composer could not possibly have known that more than a century later, it would be a veritable rite of passage for aspiring young ballet dancers the world over.
Yet that indeed is what it has become, and here on the East End, for the last nine years those aspiring dancers have been working through the Waltz of the Flowers and other famous Nutcracker movements as students at the Hamptons Ballet Theatre School (HBTS) under direction of Sara Jo Strickland (a.k.a. Ms. Sara).
The HBTS version of “The Nutcracker” will be presented at Guild Hall this weekend and it’s particularly meaningful for one young dancer — 15-year-old Samantha Prince, a sophomore at East Hampton High School who began dancing with HBTS at age 5 and this year, will be appearing in the ballet’s pinnacle role as the Sugar Plum Fairy.
“This has been my dream since I started ballet. I think the Nutcracker was the first ballet I ever saw in New York, and the dancer was just amazing,” said Samantha last week during a break in her rehearsals at the HBTS studio in Bridgehampton. “When I got this role, I cried.”
In order to understand how big a deal the Sugar Plum Fairy is for a young ballerina like Samantha, it’s vital to understand that the various Nutcracker roles are akin to rungs on a ladder which start when little girls are in pre-school and, if they stick with it, can one day lead to the Sugar Plum Fairy. From tiny Polichenelles emerging from beneath Mother Ginger’s skirt, to Angels, Spanish Dancers (Chocolate), Arabian Dancers (Coffee), Chinese Dancers (Tea), Russian Dancers (Candy Canes), Danish Shepherdesses (Marzipan), and Clara (the story’s protagonist and the first big role), the dancers grow in skill and strength to take on more demanding parts.
“For my first Nutcracker, I was a Polichenelle leader. Then I moved up to being an Angel and Chinese Dancer, Little Tea Leaves, Arabian Dancer, then Clara,” explained Samantha. “I was 9 when I played Clara. Ms. Sara places huge emphasis on commitment and in addition to dancing, it’s an acting role. I wasn’t very good at the acting, but you have to do that with any role.”
“That’s when I really started becoming more serious about ballet,” she said.
Samantha spent the next trio of summers traveling to SUNY Purchase and the American Academy of Ballet, where she took three-week dance intensives. She explained that while the program was not as competitive as some dance intensives, it allowed instructors to focus on the ability of each dancer in order to help them reach their own next level.
“I felt it was a turning point in my dancing,” she said. “There were so many great teachers and they really work on your technique.”
All the while, she continued to hone her skills at HBTS, going on pointe at age 11 and working through the Nutcracker hierarchy. But what’s expected of Samantha this year in her role as Sugar Plum Fairy is truly new territory for her — dancing with a partner.
Nick Peregrino, a dancer with Fadi J. Khoury Dance in Manhattan, will be dancing with Samantha as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier in the grand pas de deux. It’s the most famous dance sequence of the ballet and fortunately for Samantha, Peregrino isn’t a stranger at HBTS. He has danced the Cavalier role for the company in previous Nutcrackers and has been teaching partnering classes to many of the young ballerinas at HBTS, including Samantha.
“The partnering classes were an incredible experience for me. It’s so fun and he’s so great. He offers a lot of really good corrections and everything he says is constructive,” said Samantha. “I knew him from taking partnering classes, but I never really partnered with him before. The process has been about finding myself and being able to trust him. You really have to trust your partner when you’re dancing. I just have to be really confident and just react in the movement.”
Having spent most of her ballet training focused on perfecting her own movements, learning to communicate with a dance partner in order to create a seamless performance is new territory for Samantha and Peregrino is teaching her those skills.
“Nick says I anticipate the movement and instead I need to listen because he’s telling me what I need to do. On stage, it’s me and my partner working together and not just me. The two of us have to dance as one, to make one picture,” said Samantha who has been working with Peregrino on the piece since late September. “The first few rehearsals I was nervous and not talking to him. But you really need to say, ‘this feels weird,’ or I need to be more forward.”
The pas de deux is also a very strenuous dance — running close to six minutes, and Samantha explained that it’s important for her to maintain both stamina and form when she begins getting tired. She has also learned the importance of bringing personality to the role through small gestures and an awareness of the people who are watching her.
“Ms. Sara always says, ‘flirt with the audience and use your shoulders,’ the movements are small and have to be precise and technical,” said Samantha.
Though she makes it all look effortless, ballet is a huge commitment for this young dancer — especially since she lives in Montauk. These days, Samantha is dancing seven days a week — sometimes for up to five hours a day.
“On school days, I get up at 5:45 a.m. and take the bus from Montauk, then I go straight to the studio from school,” she said. “Sometimes, I’ll have a small snack in the car.”
“I owe so much to my mom, she’s been driving me for years,” added Samantha. “She allowed me to go the Academy and has been so supportive. This is her dream as well as mine.”
Hampton Ballet Theatre School’s 9th annual production of “The Nutcracker” is Friday December 8 through Sunday, December 10 at Guild Hall’s John Drew Theater, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Shows are Friday at 7 p.m., Saturday at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Advance ticket prices are $15 to $45 and day of performance tickets are $20 to $50. Call (888) 933-4287 or visit hamptonballettheatreschool.com for tickets and information.