Clara is on point, en pointe, and ready for the Nutcracker stage

Olivia Santos
Olivia Santos

The best part of the Nutcracker for Olivia Santos is the “Waltz of the Flowers” because she loves the music. The trickiest part is the candy cane dance, where she has to jump through a hula hoop on pointe shoes. Even though it’s difficult, she loves it, she said, and that’s what makes this dancer so well suited to take on the role of Clara in the Vermont Ballet Theater (VBT) and School’s annual holiday production at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. Olivia is in seventh grade at Charlotte Central School.

As an apprentice and the youngest member of the senior company at VBT, Olivia, who is 13, said she’s had her eye on the Clara role since she started dancing at age four. “I always looked up to the Claras, and I thought they were like role models to me because they were so much older, and so much more advanced. It always was a goal for me,” she said.

It’s a little surreal and a lot of fun for her to see the young dancers now, she said. “It’s super exciting to see the little girls, and they’re smiling, and they wave, and it makes me feel excited.”

“Excited” is a word that pops up a lot in conversation with Olivia—the word “nervous” doesn’t come up even once. Her confidence comes from preparation, she said. Each year she dances at a six-week intensive program over the summer, and during the school year she dances for three hours, four days a week. During Nutcracker season, she adds seven hours of dance on Saturday.

“I know the choreography front to back,” she said, which means that during rehearsals as the show approaches she’s less focused on things like how to ballet jump through a hula hoop and more focused on aesthetics. When she dances, she said, there are no distractions from the outside world. “You’re kind of in your own little world,” she said, “and it’s cool to tell a story with movement, and I really like that.”

“There are a lot of things that go through your head about technique, like, does this look good, how do I tweak this or that, but I think a lot of it is the artistry, and how you stand out from everybody else, and I like to play around with it,” she said. “When I dance, I like to just take the music and go off that.”

Alex Nagiba is the artistic director of VBT and Olivia’s instructor and coach. He said watching her develop as a dancer is a pleasure and that her talent will take her beyond the stage at the Flynn. “She’s wonderful. She listens well, she works very hard, she’s a great artist, her ballet technique is impeccable, and she’s really good at it. Too good: Let’s put it that way,” he said.

The hard work isn’t really hard work when you love what you’re doing, Olivia said. “I have fun all the time, and it’s so cool to think about going on stage and performing.”

Olivia is also a serious student, and though during lunch and recess her dance life pops into her mind, she said she tries really hard to make sure she’s thinking about school during school, if only so she can concentrate on dance when she’s practicing.

When she’s not dancing, Olivia said she has other hobbies, like baking and cooking and working on arts and crafts projects.

Nagiba said he is looking forward to all of the Claras who will be dancing in this weekend’s production, and that they have all worked hard this fall. Olivia, though, he acknowledged, has something extra that can’t be defined.
“She’s developing at a rapid pace; you don’t see it often in young people,” he said. “Sometimes, when you see five-year-olds play a Mozart concerto on the piano, we don’t know where that comes from. Olivia has that kind of quality. It’s so cool. We’re so excited for her.”

A lot of credit goes to VBT, Olivia said, because the instructors there are supportive of her individuality and allow her to thrive. “They give you the opportunity to be you when you dance,” she said. “I just love VBT and everyone is so supportive there, and the teachers are great, and it feels like a really inclusive environment, and I love dancing there.”

Nagiba said Olivia’s natural abilities are evident when she’s on the stage. “She’s great—she makes professional ballerinas want to be able to do what she can do at this age.”

For Olivia, a lot of the fun is taking the appearance of hard work out of it altogether. “I like making something super challenging look super easy…to get that feeling of nailing a step that you’ve been practicing forever is a great feeling,” she said.

Olivia said that her advice for future Claras is that the key to success is hard work and having a good time. “I think to work hard every day and not think that it’s so far out of reach, because it’s really achievable if you work really hard, and as long as you’re having fun with it, that’s the best part.”

The VBT production of The Nutcracker runs this weekend, Saturday, December 21, at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. and Sunday, December 22 at 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. Olivia is dancing as Clara in the matinee shows. For tickets, call 802-86Flynn or visit the Flynn website.