Friday’s opening of the New Jersey Ballet’s Nutcracker in Morristown was memorable for plenty of reasons: Lyrical dancing, a velvety orchestra, spectacular sets and costumes, a huge crowd.
And then there were all those Claras. Thirty of them, in fact, crowding the Community Theatre stage.
“I remember the first time, my first glass of champagne. I hiccuped all the way home,” said Carolyn Tener Brown, who at age 11 was the first Clara in the New Jersey Ballet’s first Nutcracker in 1971.
Since then, 77 girls have played the central character in this classic holiday fantasy. Director Carolyn Clark, who appeared pensive before Friday’s show despite having directed approximately 800 Nutcracker performances over the years, looked considerably more relaxed inviting 30 Claras to take a bow before the final curtain. They came to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the production.
Carolyn Tener Brown, now a coach of today’s Clara’s–including Diandra Marks, 15, of Morris Township–enjoyed a career with the American Ballet Theatre and on Broadway. She danced in Hair, Carousel (where she met her husband, Michael Kalthoff), Brigadoon, Fame-The Musical, La Cage Aux Folles and Phantom of the Opera. Her TV credits include All My Children and The Sopranos.
“My father came to every performance” of Nutcracker “but left after the first half,” because the Clara character does not do much after the intermission except “sit and get cold,” Carolyn Tener Brown said.
But that first half is crucial. Clara receives a Nutcracker as a Christmas present; she dozes off and her toy transforms into a prince who escorts her on a series of magical adventures.
“You’ve got to tell the story,” Carolyn Tener Brown said. “It’s a hard choreography.”
For two seasons she was the New Jersey Ballet’s only Clara. The company realized that was a bit risky, she said. Nutcracker’s 10-show run in Morristown (it concludes Dec. 26) rotates five young dancers through the role.
Ballerinas often sacrifice much of their childhoods honing their craft. Kerry Cox, a Morristown resident who dances with the New Jersey Ballet, left her Warren County home at age 13 to study ballet in Pittsburgh.
Carolyn Tener Brown, now a mother of 19-year-old twin boys, said her father helped her “try to stay normal” as she was growing up. They played tennis, and she went horseback riding. When an injury landed her foot in a cast during the 10th grade, she discovered the high school social scene.
Friday’s reunion brought memories dancing back.
She recalled being smitten with Edward Villella, an international star who danced as the Cavalier in that first year. (He now is an artistic advisor to the New Jersey Ballet.) And she remembered the exuberance of Carolyn Clark as director.
“She was so beautiful, so happy. It’s amazing, 40 years. She was like my mother back then.”
Most indelible is the moment in Nutcracker when Clara bounds onstage alone to curl up on the couch. Carolyn Tener Brown’s eyes still shine bright at the memory.
“Coming on stage, it was like, Yes! It’s just me now!” she said. “The energy!”