Is the role in The Nutcracker every girl dreams of winning really a curse?
She didn't grow up to be the Sugar Plum Fairy, but this Clara made another childhood dream come true
If the makers of The Curse of Clara: A Holiday Tale get their wish, they'll have started a new tradition this December 14, when the animated special premieres on CBC. The story, set in 1972 at the National Ballet School in Toronto, is already tied to a couple things Canadian families revisit every winter. Hockey, for one (the Summit Series factors significantly) and The Nutcracker.
This time of year, as they have for a century, ballet companies are presenting Tchaikovsky's winter fantasy, and that includes the National Ballet of Canada, whose own Nutcracker runs December 12 - January 3. For 25 years, Veronica Tennant danced as the Sugar Plum Fairy with the company, and the companion of the Order of Canada is a producer and creative consultant on The Curse of Clara.
"I don't think there's any other ballet or performing art form that has such a sense of continuum that happens on both sides of the footlights. And I love that about The Nutcracker. It's very, very special," Tennant tells CBC Arts. "Young dancers in the ballet school are on stage with professionals and as the years go by some of those children then go into the various roles of the ballet, right up to playing grandparents."
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And yet, there's a loophole in The Nutcracker's law of succession. Have you ever heard of the "Curse of the Claras?"
To be fair, it's not always described in such spooky terms. Tennant herself says she'd never heard the phrase before working on the special. But the National Ballet acknowledges the legend in their virtual museum, a superstition based on one odd fact: of all the National Ballet School students to play the role, not a single little Clara grew up to be a Principal Dancer. (Since the mid-'90s, the company has staged James Kudelka's version of the ballet, which re-names Clara as Marie — and a "Mending of the Maries" has broken the so-called curse. Elena Lobsanova, a former Marie, was the Sugar Plum Fairy in 2011.)
The Curse of Clara: A Holiday Tale is based on the true story of one of those young dancers. Vickie Fagan was a student at the National Ballet School, and at age 12 — just like the Vickie in the TV special -— she landed the role of Clara.
"It really was a dream come true. And I think when you're a kid you can really just let your imagination go there to the point where you totally disappear into it," Fagan, now a writer and TV producer (CHUM Televison), tells CBC Arts. "But there's a lot of stress that comes with being Clara in The Nutcracker that you don't anticipate as a kid."
In the show, which is based on a 2009 memoir, young Vickie gets over her anxiety with a little help from a celebrity mentor. Not Karen Kain, though the current Artistic Director of the National Ballet does play herself in The Curse of Clara. It's Hockey Hall of Famer Phil Esposito, who teaches the youngster to give her arabesques "150 per cent."
"We had to watch the Canada-Russia series," Fagan remembers of her school days in 1972. A TV was set up in one of the dance studios, and all the kids, Fagan included, would watch the action unfold. "I developed a mad crush on Phil Esposito," she laughs. Esposito himself is in the special, though the tween twitterpation is dialed down for the sake of the story. Esposito is more like Vickie's imaginary friend/dance coach. For Fagan, getting to work with the hockey legend was like a childhood dream come true, right up there with dancing the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy. "He really was larger than life, as I'd anticipated."
Fagan says Tennant's involvement was just as much of a miracle, and the two consulted with animators at Toronto's Smiley Guys Studios to ensure their cartoon dancers appeared authentic. "The people who know will really know," Fagan says. "Especially in the ballet world, those people watching will spot it immediately if the positioning isn't correct."
"It's funny. Veronica was a Sugar Plum Fairy when I was Clara," Fagan says, and Tennant tells CBC Arts she remembers her well. "Someone like Vickie stands out in your mind as just one of those special talents. She was just lovely. She had a sparkle in her eyes and that sort of very young joie de vivre coupled with dancing ability."
As a young woman, before starting a career in TV, Fagan danced professionally, but like so many Claras, she was never a star ballerina.
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"I think a lot of people just grow up. I did," she says. "I went through a phase where [ballet] meant everything to me, and when I got to be about 17 or 18 I had to kind of look and say 'do you really want to do this?' Because it's really hard work. It's not like being a hockey player who makes a million dollars a year. Unless you absolutely can't live without it, don't do it."
That reality is no curse. Fagan's dream wasn't to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. Instead, she wrote her place in The Nutcracker's multi-generational tradition. "I don't think I've been this excited about something since I was actually cast as Clara."
The Curse of Clara: A Holiday Tale. Starring Sara Botsford, Saara Chaudry, Bob Cole, Phil Esposito, Karen Kain, Sheila McCarthy. Monday, Dec. 14 at 7pm (7:30NT) on CBC Television.