Budding Ballerina

Sarah-Gab­ri­elle Ry­an’s de­vo­tion and her roles in ‘The Nutcrack­er’ make one thing clear. The teen’s pur­suit of a bal­let ca­reer keeps her on her toes.

Cour­tesy of Vanessa Ry­an

When Sarah-Gab­ri­elle Ry­an was 9, she had a teach­er who didn’t think much of her de­sire to be a pro­fes­sion­al baller­ina. Pick something that’s more real­ist­ic, she re­called the teach­er telling her.

That was about five years ago, the same year the young Holmes­burg res­id­ent was chosen to dance in the Pennsylvania Bal­let’s pro­duc­tion of The Nutcrack­er.

The teach­er was in­vited to a per­form­ance, Sarah’s mom, Vanessa Ry­an, re­called dur­ing an in­ter­view last week at their Le­on Street home. 

“She didn’t come.”

Sarah, now 14 and home-schooled, has been in The Nutcrack­er every year since. This year she is dan­cing in sev­er­al roles of the hol­i­day pro­duc­tion, which is on the stage of the Academy of Mu­sic, at Broad and Lo­cust streets, through Dec. 31.

It’s an im­press­ive re­sume at her age. So dan­cing pro­fes­sion­ally, as far as Sarah’s con­cerned, is a per­fectly real­ist­ic goal.

Dan­cing is very real. It re­quires lots of hard work, de­term­in­a­tion and stam­ina. Sarah prac­tices eight hours a day, six days a week, and some­times on Sundays too.

“She’s re­spons­ible,” her moth­er said.

Sarah gets up early every day to get her school­work done be­fore head­ing for the Rock School of Dance in Cen­ter City. Her daugh­ter un­der­stands the ground rules, Vanessa Ry­an says.

“She knows: No good grades, no dance.”

Sarah has been dan­cing since she was 3. There was some pain be­fore her feet got used to the rig­ors of prac­tice.

“Now the feet are fine,” Sarah said. “It’s the oth­er parts that hurt.”

There’s a dan­cer’s resig­na­tion to that pain. As one of Sarah’s teach­ers bluntly told the young baller­ina, “If noth­ing hurts in the morn­ing, it means you’re dead.”

So whenev­er Sarah hurts after a de­mand­ing prac­tice, she beats those in­ev­it­able aches by tak­ing Ad­vil, or she’ll rely on oint­ments like Bengay and Icy Hot to calm muscle pain.

She also has to be care­ful of in­jury dur­ing re­cre­ation­al pur­suits away from the dance floor. Some activ­it­ies are off-lim­its. No rolling skat­ing or ice skat­ing, her moth­er said, es­pe­cially now that The Nutcrack­er per­form­ances are un­der­way at the Academy.

Sarah also has to be mind­ful of what she eats. The ded­ic­a­tion that must in­flu­ence her choices isn’t for every­one, she ad­ded, not­ing that she has seen oth­er dan­cers just quit when they were 12 or 13, un­will­ing — or per­haps un­able — to ad­here to a dan­cer’s life­style.

“It just too much for them,” Sarah said.

The look of a bal­let is grace and el­eg­ance, but it re­quires a lot more strength from the dan­cers than most people would think, she ex­plained. “They think we’re fra­gile, but we’re not,” the baller­ina said.

Emo­tion­al strength is an­oth­er vir­tue for dan­cers. Sarah ac­know­ledges that, when wait­ing in the wings to per­form, “you are anxious,” but once on­stage and in­to the rhythm of the per­form­ance, “you feel re­laxed and calm.”

Sarah said she’s the young­est of 16 dan­cers cast as snow­flakes in The Nutcrack­er, the en­dur­ing story of Clara, her be­loved nutcrack­er gift and a ma­gic­al dream. Sarah will dance sev­er­al oth­er roles as well, but she counts the snow scene as the most dif­fi­cult.

ldquo;You must work as a group,” she said. “It’s hard to dance with all the oth­er dan­cers.”

The ap­plause, of course, is the re­ward for all that hard work. “It feels really, really good,” she said.

A good bal­let per­form­ance nat­ur­ally re­lies on the strength and pre­ci­sion of the dan­cers, but not everything works out all the time. Some­times, it seems, a lot can go awry.

In a school pro­duc­tion of The Nutcrack­er, Sarah re­called, “all the tricks were go­ing wrong.” One prop was sup­posed to be on fire; in­stead, it just fizzled. Can­nons were sup­posed to dis­charge; they re­mained si­lent. In one scene, Sarah was one of sev­er­al “dolls” to be car­ried on­stage by male dan­cers.

The dolls were car­ried on­stage as scrip­ted, ex­cept for one — Sarah. Some­how she got left be­hind.

“I had to run on­stage.” 

As well as en­ergy and de­term­in­a­tion, pur­su­ing a bal­let ca­reer re­quires a lot of fam­ily sup­port — and money.

Sarah en­joys plenty of back­ing. Fam­ily mem­bers go to all her per­form­ances, and Vanessa Ry­an logs the same hours as your ste­reo­typ­ic­al “soc­cer mom,” only she’s a bal­let mom who com­mits a lot of hours and miles to get­ting her teen­age daugh­ter to dance school, re­hears­als and per­form­ances.

In fact, Vanessa quit her job and now handles the home-school­ing of her daugh­ter through the Com­mon­wealth of Pennsylvania Cy­ber Academy.

Her moth­er isn’t an ob­sess­ive stage mom, Sarah will tell you. And Vanessa says she’s happy to back her daugh­ter’s pur­suit of a dance ca­reer, and that if she ever wants to quit and move on to something else, that’s fine too.

That oth­er re­quire­ment of a suc­cess­ful bal­let ca­reer — money — is sig­ni­fic­ant. A baller­ina’s pointe shoes cost $150 a pair, and dan­cers go through dozens of pairs a year. The little bit of skirt known as a tutu can start at about $1,000, Sarah said. Then there are au­di­tions and tu­itions and travel ex­penses, mom ad­ded.

Sarah began study­ing bal­let at a Frank­ford Av­en­ue dance stu­dio when she was 3. When Sarah was 5, her moth­er said, a teach­er re­com­men­ded she study at the Rock School. She has been there ever since and has at­ten­ded pro­grams with the Bolshoi Bal­let Academy and the San Fran­cisco Bal­let — which, co­in­cid­ent­ally, per­formed the first full-length Amer­ic­an pro­duc­tion of The Nutcrack­er in Decem­ber 1944.

The Ry­an fam­ily knew the real­ity of Sarah’s ca­reer goal when, as a 5-year-old, they took her to a per­form­ance of the time­less hol­i­day mu­sic­al.

“She had her pic­ture taken with the Mouse King,” her moth­er said, “and then an­nounced she was go­ing to be a real baller­ina.”

It was an an­nounce­ment not taken very ser­i­ously at first, she said.

ldquo;Who’s go­ing to be­lieve a five-year-old when she wants to be a baller­ina?” ••

Re­port­er John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or jloftus@bsmphilly.com

Joy of ‘The Nutcrack­er’

The Pennsylvania Bal­let’s pro­duc­tion of George Bal­anchine’s The Nutcrack­er, now in its 43rd year, is on­stage at the Academy of Mu­sic, Broad and Lo­cust streets, through Dec. 31. 

The bal­let, with mu­sic by Peter Tchaikovsky, also fea­tures the Phil­adelphia Boys Choir and the Pennsylvania Bal­let Or­ches­tra. Avail­able tick­ets are priced between $77 and $260. Call 215-893-1999.

You can reach at jloftus@bsmphilly.com.

comments powered by Disqus