EXCLUSIVE: Ballet Star Sara Mearns Talks Sugar Plum Fairy and Dancing in Nutcracker at The Straz

New York City Ballet principal dancer Sara Mearns recently starred in The Red Shoes on Broadway and in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® for NYCB. Beloved by young ballerinas and a superstar onstage, Mearns is also a face of Guerlain perfume and Cole Haan. She works with many dance organizations to inspire people to love classical ballet as well as prevent injuries. It was our privilege to catch up with her to talk about her upcoming role with Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker.

CAUGHT IN THE ACT: Describe your first experiencing dancing Sugar Plum Fairy … what did it mean to you as a dancer to finally have arrived at this prestigious role? What does it mean to you at this point in your career?

SARA MEARNS: I remember the first time I performed Sugar Plum. I danced it with Stephen Hanna who was already a principal, and I was a soloist at the time. Fortunately, I had done some pretty big roles like Swan Lake, Faust, and Western Symphony to name a few. I sort of had a sense of what it would feel like out there, and I don’t remember being nervous at all. Stephen took great care of me. That was in 2006. Since then, I have had my shares of ups and downs in my career and particularly with Nutcracker. Personally, the holidays are a strange time for me, and I’m always very exhausted at the end of the year after so much dancing. I had a bout with stage fright last year during Nutcracker that took me away from the stage for a bit, so now I’m back and feel much more confident. I try to go out there and think about all the little kids and aspiring dancers watching. For most people, it’s the first ballet they’ve seen, and I want to make it special for them, so it’s not about me anymore. No matter how good or bad the performance is, the kids are just seeing the ballerina role they want to be some day, and it makes me so happy that I can be that for them.

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CITA: What do you bring to the interpretation of the Balanchine choreography that you feel like is “yours”?

SM: I recently got a compliment/comment on my interpretation of Sugar Plum and it was “unconventional”… and, yes, I will most certainly take that as a compliment! I don’t want to look like anyone else, and that is what’s brilliant about Balanchine’s choreography. Every ballerina can look completely different and have her own take on it, But, the steps and musicality is clearly Balanchine. The pas is so perfect that I could never imagine doing another version. The build-up is just right, and it has the audience on the edge of their seat the whole time. It never gets old hearing the excitement of the audience at the end. It’s so beautiful.

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Sara Mearns photographed at the 1896 studios in Brooklyn. (Photo: Pari Dukovic)

CITA: Will you talk a little about what you are looking forward to most about working alongside the Next Generation Ballet pre-professional company? Philip [Neal, artistic director for NGB and former NYCB principal dancer] gushed about what great examples of professional dancers you all are, and he mentioned that you would all be great with the younger dancers.

SM: As I said before, more than any other time during the year, the Nutcracker is about the children and creating a magical world that they will fall in love with. I love going to suburban schools all over the country and sharing my experiences and my dancing with others. I was in their shoes a long time ago, so I want to give back and show them what they can achieve if they work really hard and stay true to themselves. Can’t wait to meet all the students in Tampa! Also, Philip is a dear friend and a role model of mine. I was so lucky that I got to dance with him in NYCB. I learned so much from him as a colleague, friend, and teacher. He is a true light in the dance world.

CITA: What are you eager to see, do (or eat) during your stay in Tampa? You know we have the best café con leche and Cuban sandwiches.

SM: I’ve never spent much time in Tampa! So, I’m looking forward to eating and seeing all new things. As you know, we don’t get much time there due to our schedules, but we will cherish the very little time that we have. Thank you for having me!

Philip's final NYCB performance

Sara Mearns and Philip Neal, artistic director of NGB, at Philip’s final performance with NYCB.

Sara performs as Sugar Plum Fairy in the Friday and Saturday night performances of Nutcracker. Thursday night, Patricia Delgado performs Sugar Plum Fairy, and we will profile her in next week’s blog.

To get a glimpse of Sara in action, watch this one-minute clip of her with her partner, Amar Ramasar, who will be dancing with her in NGB’s Nutcracker. Here, they dance Balanchine’s Brahms-Schoenberg Quartet: