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Sara Mearns is still in her 20s, but she's already had a storied, dramatic dance career.
She was chosen by the legendary Peter Martins to dance the lead in New York City Ballet's "Swan Lake" when she was 19.
She quickly became a NYCB luminary. No less than New York Times critic Alastair Macauley called her "the great American ballerina of our time."
She suffered a debilitating back injury last year, and, after eight months, finally was able to return to the stage at the beginning of 2013.
And this weekend? She'll be performing in New London.
Mearns will dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Eastern Connecticut Ballet's "Nutcracker" at the Garde Arts Center, where she'll partner with NYCB's Amar Ramasar as the Cavalier Prince.
Mearns was asked to perform in Eastern Connecticut Ballet's production by Gloria Govrin - a former New York City Ballet soloist who is now ECB's artistic director. The two met at a San Francisco summer program, and they later reconnected over Facebook.
It's not unusual for NYCB dancers to pop in to do guest appearances in local "Nutcrackers" like this and to perform with students from ballet schools. When she's done that in the past, Mearns says, "It's really cool to see all the young dancers get really, really excited to see professionals come in. When we start dancing, their eyes light up. It's pretty awesome because I remember feeling like that when I was younger."
Indeed, when she was a dancer in her pre-teen and early teen years, Mearns recalls,
"I was just having a lot of fun. I knew that my professional career was sort of possible but it was out of reach still. I didn't really know what it was about or how to get there."
But she did, fueled by hard work and prodigious talent. She travelled from her South Carolina hometown - where there were four studios that would collaborate on performances - to New York City, where she spent four summers at the School of American Ballet. She became an NYCB apprentice at age 17.
Being cast at age 19 as the lead in NYCB's "Swan Lake," she says, "was pretty crazy." NYCB's Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins is known for giving dancers a chance so he can see what they can really do, but it was still a huge deal - especially since it was "Swan Lake."
"It's always been my favorite ballet, but having it be the first thing I ever do on a professional stage as a solo or anything - because all I'd been doing is Snow and Flowers in the corps - was mind-blowing," Mearns says. "I just couldn't believe he (Martins) saw that I could do this or it was possible. Still, to this day, I can't believe he picked me out to do that. It jumpstarted everything."
She's done "Swan Lake" for eight years and says, "It's a part of me now."
As for her back injury, Mearns says she's feeling good after her recovery. (The injury happened when she was landing a jump during a rehearsal.) Getting back onstage, she says, "was really pretty emotional."
No wonder. She's been doing ballet since she was 3 years old and, she says, "it's something I use to express myself, and that's when I feel free, that's when I feel I'm at my best. I'm a huge lover of classical music. The music really moves me and allows me to be whoever I want to be and make up stories in my head. I get to explore and imagine."
After "Nutcracker" season is over, NYCB heads into January and February with performances of what Mearns says will be "lots and lots of Balanchine rep." There will be a new ballet, too, by Liam Scarlett, from the Royal Ballet.
"We have two months of pretty awesome rep coming up," she says.
Eastern Connecticut Ballet's "The Nutcracker," 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sat. and 1:30 p.m. Sun., Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London; $35-$45, ages 12 and under $21-$28, with military, senior and group discounts available; (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org.