The stuff of dreams for local ballerinas: Sharing the stage with Misty Copeland in ‘Nutcracker’

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WINDHAM, NH – Celebrity ballerina Misty Copeland is most recognizable these days as the face of the latest Under Armour advertising campaign (a powerful must-watch testament to not giving up on your dreams).

But for a group of budding ballerinas from New England Dance Ensemble in Londonderry, Copeland has become their personal role model, after the chance to perform alongside her during the recent sold-out performances of  “The Nutcracker” at Windham High School.

Although  Copeland, a Missouri native, had never been to Windham prior to prepping for the seasonal classic ballet performance, she said part of her felt like she’d just returned home.

It took her right back to where she started as a young ballerina with her own big dreams.

Copeland, a late bloomer by ballet standards, landed the role of Clara in “The Nutcracker” at age 14 – just one year after she began taking ballet lessons.

A short time later, Copeland was dancing in New York City’s American Ballet Theatre (ABT) and the rest, as they say, is history.

She was one of several nationally renowned soloists to perform alongside the local dancers in the New England Dance Ensemble’s Nutcracker performances on Nov. 29 and 30.

For Copeland, the experience was refreshing as it was humbling.

“It’s always nice to remember being in their position,” she said, motioning to a cluster of much-younger cast members. “You can just feel their joy and their appreciation, and you realize you were in the same place not too long ago.”

Just hours after her train pulled into South Station in Boston on Black Friday, Copeland was fully dressed for her role as the Sugar Plum Fairy, eager to engage – and inspire – the local dancers during Friday night’s dress rehearsal.

Backstage, Copeland was trying her best to ease the shyness of a small group of eight-year-old “Polichinelles” dancers.

“Your hair looks pretty awesome,” she told them, crouching down low to meet the gazes of the star-struck little girls. “I’ll see you onstage.”

Wearing oversized clusters of curls atop their heads, dancers Bianca Fonseca and Samantha Cornellier, couldn’t take their eyes off Copeland.

“Thank you for coming,” Bianca told her. “You’re really pretty,” Samantha chimed in, clutching her friend’s hand.

Later, some of the teenage dancers were a bit bolder, questioning Copeland about everything from stage fright (yes, she still has it from time to time) to costumes.

Admittedly, the stage in the Windham High School auditorium was a long way from New York City, but for Copeland, the opportunity to inspire the next generation of dancers far outweighed the challenges of fitting additional performances into her extremely hectic schedule.

Copeland said she first learned about New England Dance Ensemble from fellow ABT soloist,  Sterling Baca.

“Actually, this is perfect timing,” she said with a grin. “It’ll be good practice for me,” she added. Copeland is starring in the ABT’s Nutcracker this month.

Baca performed alongside Copeland, the gallant Cavalier to her Sugar Plum Fairy.

The production also featured ABT dancers Catherine Hurlin as the Snow Queen/Arabian and Sungwoo Han as the Snow King/Arabian.

For Baca, performing in the local Nutcracker has become a new holiday tradition. Last weekend’s three sold-out performances marked his fourth production with NEDE.

“I just love the community here,” he said. “They’re so focused. And (NEDE Artistic Director Barbara Mullen) really sets a standard. She’s teaching her students to push forward – not only in ballet but also in life.”

This year’s local Nutcracker performances featured the talents of 120 dancers, from youngsters clad in oversized mouse ears to internationally renowned luminaries.

'Tis the Nutcracker Season! Click the link to find a performance near you.
‘Tis the Season! Click the nutcracker to find a performance of this beloved holiday ballet near you.

Over the years, Mullen said she’s had many well-known dancers perform with her students, though Copeland’s visit to Windham is particularly special for various reasons.

Within minutes of meeting Mullen, Copeland greeted her with a giant hug.

“Misty is all heart,” Mullen said. “She’s stayed humble. It’s an important lesson for the kids to learn.”

Watching the younger dancers interact with a legend was a magical experience.

“One of the ‘Clara’s’ just told me she wasn’t going to wash her hair for a week after Misty puts that crown on her head,” Mullen said.

Three local girls shared the role of Clara: Londonderry’s Audrey Severn, Windham’s Victoria InDelicato and Dracut, Mass. resident Sophia Coakley.

Asked what it’s like to share the stage with Copeland, Coakley, 14, said it was hard to describe the experience in words.

“I’m elated, I’m honored,” she said, her face flushed with excitement. “I just can’t believe it.”

Victoria, 13, is a seventh grader at Windham Middle School and has performed in eight previous “Nutcrackers.”

But she said nothing could have truly prepared her for this weekend’s celebrity encounter, particularly the moment she caught her first passing glimpse of the famous ballet prodigy.

“She’s just so beautiful, so eloquent,” Victora said of Copeland. “She’s also a great person.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-06 at 7.28.35 PMCopeland’s bestselling autobiography, Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina, was released this past spring. A short time later, the 32-year-old dancer served as a guest judge on FOX’s So You Think You Can Dance.

And just last month the Oxygen network announced the upcoming production of a new reality series, tentatively titled The Misty Copeland Project. In the television series, Copeland will mentor a Master Class of younger dancers – making her experience with the young New Hampshire Nutcracker troupe almost like a dress rehearsal for her next adventure.

The self-described “unlikely ballerina” reminded her new friends in from Windham to hold tight to their dreams.

“If you put in the time and you’re willing to sacrifice things like hanging out with your friends, amazing things can happen,” she said. “I’m lucky in the sense that I actually got to attend my high school prom, but it’s still pretty rare for dancers to experience ‘normal’ teenage life.”

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Longtime NH journalist and publisher of Loves R&B, German beer, and the Queen City!