A dancing dream come true

New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns strikes a pose as the Sugar Plum Fairy as she joins the dancers of the Eastern Connecticut Ballet for their annual performance of The Nutcracker Saturday, December 9, 2017 at The Garde Arts Center in New London. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns strikes a pose as the Sugar Plum Fairy as she joins the dancers of the Eastern Connecticut Ballet for their annual performance of The Nutcracker Saturday, December 9, 2017 at The Garde Arts Center in New London. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

It was a dream come true for the hundred-plus Eastern Connecticut Ballet students performing in their annual production of “The Nutcracker” at the Garde Arts Center Saturday afternoon — for them, it was their chance to dance alongside their “Queen,” New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns.

“She looked at me!” one young dancer, who just finished her performance next to Mearns, said after running offstage.

“That has to be one of the top 10 moments of my life!”

Mearns, who comes annually to New London to perform as the Sugar Plum Fairy with the ECB, has become an icon of sorts to the school’s young dancers, who range in age from 6 to 18, and for good reason — they know that Mearns isn’t just any professional dancer.

Lauded by the New York Times as a “romantically dramatic virtuoso,” Mearns is both expressive and intense. It’s clear, even from her warm-up in the Oasis Room before the show, that Mearns brings a sort of rare transcendence to the art form — a point that is not lost on the students of the ECB.

In fact, the second Mearns walked into the room to warm up with the school’s older dancers, the dozens of chatty girls immediately became silent, quickly standing up and going into their first positions. With artistic director Gloria Govrin snapping her fingers as the metronome, the students, all dressed in purple (Mearns’ favorite color), moved through the motions with precision.

“That’s the thing that makes her special and makes us look up to her,” said 17-year-old Anna Pellegrino Monday of Mearns' exquisite dance style.

Pellegrino spoke while sitting next to her fellow dancers Ellie Wiese and Katie DeAntonis in the Garde’s foyer before rushing into the hustle and bustle of the week of practice leading up to their three performances this weekend.

“Obviously, her technique is flawless, but her character and her emotion and her passion for dance is so inspiring and I think we like to bring that into our own dance,” Pellegrino said. “It definitely feels more professional when she is here, you feel more like a professional when you dance with her.”

The three girls, who are strikingly poised and mature for their age, were also all giggles when expressing their love for the dancer.

“This year, we will probably have lights, we will make a sign and put up photos of all us together that we’ve had over the years with her in them. We just want to make her feel welcome here and happy to be here,” said DeAntonis, an 18-year-old senior at Old Saybrook High School, about decorating the ballerina’s changing room before her arrival. “For the past few years, we’ve always called her our ‘Queen,’ and she knows it, too. So this year we are getting her a little necklace that says ‘Queen’ on it.”

“She is like the Michael Jackson of ballet,” Wiese added. “When someone asks me who my celebrity crush is I always say ‘Sara Mearns,’ of course. I have her as my screensaver, and we all follow her on social media.”

And though the girls laughed about finding a pair of her pointe shoes left in the trash can of her dressing room some years prior, which they have dutifully preserved as a keepsake, or cherishing a button that fell off her costume another year, it is clear they have all been equally touched by the wisdom offered by Mearns during her biannual visits to the school.

“We had her teaching here over the summer, and we were working on a jumping combination, and she told us that we needed to jump like a goat. That might sound kind of weird to normal people, but it makes sense in our head. It’s like ‘Oh, if I jump like a goat, it means that we are jumping high, like I’m trying to get up in the air,’” Pellegrino said. “The way she says things really puts things into perspective and helps us realize how we can make our dancing better from it.”

Pellegrino, who is a senior at Waterford High School, says that she is planning to possibly pursue dance professionally.

“If you want to have a professional career, you typically have to go away to a better school and better teachers. That’s what I wanted to do, but I decided to stay here because I realized that I wouldn’t be getting better training anywhere else,” she said, referring to the instruction from artistic director Govrin and, of course, from Mearns.

Govrin, a former dancer herself, is a notable figure in the world of ballet. From 1960 to 1974 she danced as a soloist, also for the NYCB, under the direction of the legendary George Balanchine — the NYCB choreographer and co-founder who first brought “The Nutcracker” to the American stage.

Balanchine considered Govrin as one of his most notable soloist dancers, according to the New York Times, having even choreographed the “Nutcracker” character of Coffee, the Arabian dance character, specifically for her.

After retiring from dancing, Govrin became a teacher at the San Francisco Ballet School in 2000 and met Mearns soon after. Mearns was just 16 years old. Govrin was immediately impressed with her dancing ability and offered Mearns a scholarship to study at the San Francisco Ballet School for a summer intensive course. Mearns accepted.

Mearns now credits this individualized attention from Govrin as the spark that set her career into motion.

“In all honesty, her interest in me at San Francisco started everyone else’s interest in me and finding the talent that I had. So she kind of started it all,” Mearns said by phone interview last week.

“When she, years later, contacted me and invited me to come to Connecticut, I was like, absolutely, I will throw everything aside and come up there … It was a no-brainer for me.”

After watching Mearns rise through the ranks of the New York City Ballet over the last ten years, Govrin knew that Mearns would be a true inspiration for the ECB students.

“Sara is not only technically proficient, but she is passionate about everything she does. She has an interest not only in ballet, but she loves the symphony, she goes to see plays, she enriches herself, and that all comes out in her dancing. She is what I would call an intelligent dancer,” Govrin said. “The emotion is organic, it’s not put on, and it’s the emotion of the music that moves her.”

“(The students) watch her from the wings, and there it is right in front of them,” Govrin continued. “And the ones who are very talented, you can see them processing that. She brings everything, the production and their lives, up a step. She is not any ordinary dancer, she is something special.”

Wiese, who sat watching Mearns practice a few arabesques and pirouettes in the wings of the stage on Saturday, while lacing her pointe shoes, might be one of the school’s dancers who has benefitted most from Mearns’ visits. This year, among other roles, Wiese will be dancing the role of Coffee in the “Arabian Dance.” Wiese has said that she has struggled with the piece because the character is dissimilar from her personality and the dance is a step away from her typical style.

“But I think, for me, seeing (Mearns) take on these roles that aren’t like her is really helpful because, if we are struggling with a part that’s not really our style or who you are, I think seeing her shows that you can become it, you just have to focus and become that person. She pushes us to be our best,” Wiese said.

Though Wiese has decided that she won’t be pursuing dance professionally, (she hopes to attend school in Boston next year,) she can’t imagine herself stopping altogether either.

“I have such a passion for dance, and I hope to keep taking adult classes in Boston if I’m going to school there,” she said. “What I’ve received from (Mearns and Govrin’s) instruction is something irreplaceable.”

m.biekert@theday.com

Dancers of the Eastern Connecticut Ballet make room for New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns to make her entrance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the ballet's annual performance of The Nutcracker Saturday, December 9, 2017 at The Garde Arts Center in New London. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Dancers of the Eastern Connecticut Ballet make room for New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns to make her entrance as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the ballet's annual performance of The Nutcracker Saturday, December 9, 2017 at The Garde Arts Center in New London. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

If you go

What: Eastern Connecticut Ballet's "The Nutcracker"

Where: Garde Arts Center, 325 State St., New London

When: 1:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $22-$49

Contact: (860) 444-7373, gardearts.org

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