Together, Wherever We Go

The Straz Arts Education’s Broadway Buddies program unites kids from different learning backgrounds.

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A little bit exchange program, a little bit Big Brother/Big Sister, a little bit theater boot camp and a lot of laughs – that describes the remarkable new program launched by Acting Director of Community Engagement and Education Programs Alice Santana and Lead Theater Teacher Matt Belopavlovich.

Inspired by Hillsborough County Schools’ PEERS program, which pairs a typical student with an IEP [Individualized Education Program] student to form friendships and social skills, Alice and Matt realized our Patel homeschool students wouldn’t be able to participate – and neither would one of our beloved partners, Pepin Academies, because they serve only IEP students.

So, the two made a logical leap – why not start a Straz peer program matching up our Patel Conservatory homeschool students with Pepin Academies students? They coined the program “Broadway Buddies” since the kids would be participating in a graduated curriculum based on theater appreciation. First, simple introductions; then, theater games and pre-and post-activities; the Pepin kids attended a Patel Conservatory kids’ production; the homeschool kids attended a Pepin production; then, they all went to see Anastasia together earlier this month with their new-found appreciation of musical theater and of each other. They even had a Broadway Buddies Barbecue planned prior to the matinee.

“The Broadway Buddies program supports the next generation of passionate arts practitioners and patrons by passing on theater etiquette skills and developing a love of the art form,” says co-creator Matt. “At the same time, it teaches them how to develop and thrive in a more equitable society.”

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All the buddies must agree to a leadership code before they can participate. Each student is expected to learn, practice and demonstrate leadership skills based on mutual respect, hard work, positive attitudes and responsive listening. “Part of an equitable society is making paths to leadership open to everyone,” says Matt. “There’s no better place to give and take direction or explore perspective and problem solve than in creating a work of theater. It’s wonderful to see the kids shine.”

This season’s Broadway Buddies also acted as a pilot group to see if the curriculum would work. Due to the success of the partnership, Alice and Matt hope to broaden the scope of Broadway Buddies next year to include more students and more community partner schools. Each Patel Conservatory student will need to apply for the program since it is designed for the success of young people who want hands-on experience with leadership skills and reaching out to others.

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“It’s the sweetest exchange,” Alice says. “Because going to a different school and being with people you’re not used to being with is hard – at any age. But humans have an inborn desire to find common ground, to laugh and play together, and teach and learn from each other. In this program, we’re guiding kids from different learning backgrounds to peer-support each other through one of the most fun mediums we have – musical theater.”

For more information on the Straz Center Arts Education and Community Partner programs, visit strazcenter.org.

For more information on the camps, classes and workshops in the Patel Conservatory, visit patelconservatory.org.

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From Suzuki to Itzhak

Ten-year-old music student Mateo Valdes’ violin journey at the Patel Conservatory.

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Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Patel Conservatory violin student Mateo Valdes has a very deep and wise gaze under a flop of shaggy, dark bangs. He doesn’t make eye contact much, but when he does, he seems to possess a kind of old-soul way of knowing that belies his slight 10 years of age.

His mother, Natacha, trained in the Suzuki method as a child and continues to practice and play violin today. When her son was old enough to sit for an orchestra performance, she took Mateo to an afternoon concert. Like many people, initial exposure to the arts as a small child awakened his talent.

“I saw the violin,” he says simply. “And I knew right away I wanted to learn to play.” Natacha looked for schools with Suzuki classes, found the Patel Conservatory and enrolled her son in 2013, when he was five years old. The Suzuki method involves a triangle of teaching and learning among the teacher, student and a parent or guardian. So, Natacha and Mateo began this violin journey with Dr. Catherine Michelsen, the string specialist at the Patel Conservatory.

“It was different from what I expected,” Mateo says of his first lessons five years ago. “I had to practice putting my feet in the proper position when I was little and just starting. Catherine had a cardboard thing I had to put my feet on, and we would practice my posture. Then I got into playing. Book 5 is where I am now.”

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Suzuki Violin Camp at the Patel Conservatory, 2017.

But Mateo’s “where I am now” extends beyond the next book in a serial technique. Though he continues to train and learn from his enormous support system at the Patel Conservatory and at home, Mateo’s relationship to music and to his instrument denote a young artist in the dawning of his craft. “He’s been a true joy to teach,” says Dr. Michelsen. “His innate musicality was apparent early on, both in his playing and in his interest in other aspects of music such as improvisation. His sense of dynamics and phrasing is very impressive.”

Mateo’s versatility was impressive enough to land him a spot as one of the youngest violinists in the Suncoast Super Strings, an arm of the Itzhak Perlman Music Program in Sarasota. After rehearsing with an orchestra comprised of students from around Florida, the Suncoast Super Strings performed with Itzhak Perlman himself conducting in December 2017.

“I was very excited,” says Mateo. “I liked performing with so many people. Now that I played in that orchestra, I sort of have an image in my head of where I want to go, where I see myself with the violin. I see myself playing in a big concert and making recordings. And a lot of improv stuff.”

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Mateo gets a shirt autographed by Itzhak Perlman.

Mateo, who studies and practices rigorously, spends much of his free time with the violin recording himself on his computer in improvisations of what he’s learned. “I love improvising,” he says. “I work on my pieces to get better, but I do want to record and do something with that later.”

“I play with Mateo, too,” says Natacha. “I’ve seen a huge development in his technique because of Catherine’s style of teaching but also because he gets boosts with the Patel Conservatory camps. He’s more comfortable, happier with his own playing. I am most pleased about his desire to improvise, though. That’s not me or anybody else. That’s just him.”

Here’s a clip of Mateo improvising:

 

“Playing violin is very fun once you get it,” Mateo says. “After the first six months, I really started to enjoy it. It’s been great for me.”

If you want to get involved with Patel Conservatory summer camps and classes, see what’s available and register now at patelconservatory.org.

 

Mateo’s Teacher Offers Pro Tips for Starting a Child’s Violin Lessons at the Patel Conservatory

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Dr. Catherine Michelsen

We always welcome parents and children to observe the Suzuki violin group classes and lessons! Parents can get a “pass to class” in admissions to observe our Monday afternoon group classes and private lessons throughout the week. Because the Suzuki program has a higher level of parent involvement, we want to make sure that parents and students have a thorough idea of what the program entails. There is no need for parents to have musical experience themselves. However, the triangle of student, parent and teacher is part of what makes it such a rewarding experience. We can also provide help in renting or purchasing an instrument.

Funky Drummer

Fifteen-year-old Patel Conservatory student Meghan Lock: “learning drums is my life.”

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Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Meghan Lock’s formal musical life began like most, with piano lessons at the bright, young age of five years old. But, when her parents realized she was spending more minutes in time out for not practicing than minutes she was playing, they took a different route.

“I was always rhythmic,” says Meghan, “and always beating on my stomach or anything else that I could get to make a beat. So, my parents offered up drum lessons. I had my first lesson when I was 10 years old, and I never looked back.”

Two years later, Meghan met the musical form that would blow her mind: jazz. “When I had my first interaction with jazz … it was like everything made sense. I love jazz,” she says.

In 2017, Meghan threw her drumsticks in the ring for the Hits Like a Girl (HLAG) all-female drumming competition. She walked away the Week Three champion in the under 18 category for her performance of “Manteca,” the Afro-Cuban Dizzy Gillespie standard.

“Before this competition, my drumfluences were all male and the typical drummers you would hear from any jazz drummer … Art Blakey, Ari Hoenig, Max Roach, Chris “Daddy” Dave and Tony Royster, Jr. However, through the HLAG competition, I was exposed to so many talented female drummers from all over the world—it was truly inspiring,” Meghan says. “Now, I look to drummers like Helen de la Rosa, Terry Lyne Carrington and Sheila E. for drumspiration. More locally, I am insanely influenced by Mark Feinman of La Lucha. I totally stalk this band at an almost unhealthy level.”

Meghan joined Patel Conservatory music in 2016 when she landed spots in the jazz improvisation and jazz intensive programs. Studying with jazz teaching artist Matt Weihmuller, Meghan found her home at The Straz. “My first show with the Patel Jazz Combo was the Holiday Market sponsored by the Gasparilla Music Festival and the Junior League of Tampa in November 2016,” she says. “I enjoyed my time with Mr. Matt and never stopped [taking lessons and performing].” Meghan is a regular in the Jazz Combo class on Tuesday evenings at the conservatory as well as an as-needed drummer for Matt Weihmuller’s Saturday jazz improv class.

“I’ve always loved music,” Meghan says. “When I was a baby, my grandma used to carry me around singing everything from opera to country. I have no idea what I’d be focusing on if it wasn’t for drums. Learning drums is my life. Having the opportunity to work with Mr. Matt has definitely made me a better drummer. The relationships and experiences I’ve made with the Patel Jazz Combo are immeasurable … I’ve met so many great and talented people, musicians and otherwise, through the conservatory. I’m so grateful to have found this place.”

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Megan in action. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.)

Meet Meghan

Education: Homeschooled. “I love it. It gives me the flexibility to do what I do with jazz drumming.”

Animal friend: Harvey, a Lhasapoo. “He’s like my brother … we fight like brother and sister, anyway.”

Interests outside jazz: Reading, gaming and longboarding. “I’ve read the Harry Potter and The Unwanted series five times each. I could spend an entire day playing Resident Evil or Minecraft if I ever had the time. My mom and dad have longboards, and we all go to Clearwater Beach and cruise around with a pit stop for ice cream.”

Favorite Patel Conservatory gig: Godspell. “I was asked to play drums for the production—hands down on of my favorite gigs! I had such a great time, the cast was amazing and I learned so much about myself.”

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Megan performing for the Patel Conservatory’s production of Godspell. (Photo: Soho Images)

If you have an interest, curiosity, proclivity or any such thing for the performing arts, chances are we have a class, camp or workshop just for you. Our arts education program ranges from pre-K to adult, so anyone wishing to explore or train in music, dance or theater has a home at the Patel Conservatory. Visit patelconservatory.org for a list of upcoming arts education programs.

 

State Thespian Spotlight: Randy Rainbow

Internet musical parody sensation Randy Rainbow launched his life in musical theater right here on Straz stages when he was a high school Thespian.

As many, many, many, many, many high schools in Florida know, this week is State Thespian Week, when almost 8000 students, teachers, chaperones and judges descend on The Straz and elsewhere in downtown Tampa to compete for top distinctions in this distinguished drama festival.

Flashback: 19 YEARS AGO

It’s 1999. President Clinton is impeached, acquitted then cited for contempt of court. The dot-com bubble looks eternal. Joe DiMaggio dies, the Yankees win the pennant and Carolyn Bassette Kennedy and her husband, John F. Kennedy, Jr., perish in a plane crash. The United States wins the Women’s World Cup (the year we all learn the name Brandi Chastain), and the Dow Jones closes at an unprecedented 11,410. Somebody buys the last New York City Checker cab for $135K at auction. It is the year of the Columbine High School massacre and the highly publicized hate crime against Wyoming man Matthew Shepard. 1999 is the year three white supremacists are convicted of felony murder for the lynching-by-dragging of John Byrd, Jr. Unemployment is at a 29-year low. George W. Bush announces he will run for President.

Yet.

A senior in high school from Plantation, Fla., stands alone on the Morsani stage. He sings his heart out in the number he’s prepared for the Florida State Thespians. He wins for solo musical and, later, with his best friend, an award for comedy scene.

That 17-year-old, defying the world with musical theater comedy, is Randy Rainbow.

Cut to: PRESENT DAY

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First of all, Randy Rainbow *is* his real name.

Second of all, we had no idea he competed (and won, of course) during the Florida State Thespian festival when he was in high school until we had to interview him yesterday for The Straz’s “Behind the Persona” feature for INSIDE magazine. Be sure to check out that Q&A in the Spring/Summer issue out in April.

Third of all, when we found out the Randy Rainbow, who just happens to be a superhero of the internet for defying the world with musical theater comedy, played the Straz stages as a 15-, 16-, 17-year old theater kid and winning, we had to write this blog.

“When I used to do theater competitions, we would do district and state, they were held in Tampa. Florida is where everything started for me,” Randy says, “so it has a special place in my heart.”

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Randy Rainbow comes full circle when he returns to The Straz as an international internet sensation with his hilarious one man show on April 13 .

As it turns out, his time as a Thespian competing against other state actors and meeting other theater kids at The Straz changed his life. “That was a major part of my [early experiences as an actor]. That’s where I came out of the closet, as a matter of fact. At Tampa, at state competition. How appropriate.”

Like many kids who are different, Randy survived school bullies, sharpening his comedy and musical theater chops to get through and graduate to pursue his dreams. In the meantime, Thespians and his annual high school trip to the state drama festival gave him something to look forward to where he was among friends doing his favorite thing in the world.

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Ok, so this isn’t from when Randy was in high school, but it’s pretty cute. (Photo from Instagram: @randyrainbow)

“Yeah. You grow up, and it’s hard to find other drama nerds, really. So once a year, to gather with hundreds of them, I just remember, it was just ecstasy,” he says. “It was so exciting to have other like-minded people nerding out on theater. That was such an important time in my life. I still have such amazing memories of it, and it had such an impact on me. It was joy, absolute. Just … joy.”

Randy Rainbow, like so many artists, took his life experiences and the history he was born to and made his art. Now famous for his political musical parodies as a “woke show queen, comedian, actor, songstress, active-isht, Internet Sensation and TV Personality” [his Twitter description], Randy finds himself able to do something, to speak out and show up politically in visible ways.

But would he consider running for office?

“Hell, no. Let me stick to my comedy.”

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#Winning

FAME Academy at River Ridge High School won its first ever Critic’s Choice for One Act after students studied with touring Broadway actors from FUN HOME at The Straz.

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River Ridge High School students with cast members from FUN HOME after the post-show talk-back at The Straz.

SETTING: An Army hospital

CHARACTERS: Three Vietnam veterans

SYNOPSIS: The war survivors befriend each other while recuperating from tours in Vietnam. They tease, torment and often console each other as they face the uncertainties of returning to civilian life.

This play, PVT Wars, comes to the TECO Theater March 14 at 10 a.m. as part of the annual State Thespians Festival held next week on The Straz campus and elsewhere downtown. The actors, two seniors and one junior from FAME Academy (Fine Arts and Musical Entertainment) at River Ridge High School won the school’s first-ever Critic’s Choice for One Act for PVT Wars, a distinction that gave them a direct shot at the state level Thespian competition and is a huge deal to be won at the district level.

The young men—Shaun Memmel, Zachary Schumacher and Christopher Cavazza—had been working on PVT Wars when they attended a talk-back with FUN HOME actors at The Straz. Coaching the young actors on the “power of the pause” and using silence to dramatic and comedic effect, the Broadway touring stars made a craft-changing impression on the young men.

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Post-show talk-back with FUN HOME in Morsani Hall.

The RRHS students took this advice to heart and put it to work. Back in the acting lab at FAME Academy, the guys honed their one act and gave a jaw-dropping performance at the district festival, earning the coveted Critic’s Choice nod. “We were able to take what we were taught at and work on the timing,” says Taylor LaRoue, the technical theater teacher for FAME Academy at RRHS. “It was an invaluable experience. My students were able to dive into deeper conversations with professionals in the business and learn from adults outside of the classroom. Our actors were able to go back and focus on more detailed aspects like timing. I fully believe this coaching pushed us to the top.”

The Community Programs Coordinator at the Patel Conservatory at The Straz, Heather Clark, facilitated RHHS’s participation after inviting the group to Teens Take Broadway, a special pre-show party for Straz patrons in their teenage years. This exposure to the welcoming attitude of The Straz and its commitment to encouraging young people to pursue a love of the arts further encouraged the RHHS students to take advantage of what The Straz offers.

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Teens Take Broadway event at The Straz.

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River Ridge High School representing at Teens Take Broadway!

“When I first met the drama students of River Ridge High School this past fall, it was refreshing to see high school students hungry for knowledge and for real-life theater experience,” Clark says. “Because they live in Pasco County, I’m sure a lot of them don’t get the opportunity to come to The Straz as much as they would like. We offered them a fun-filled evening with our Teens Take Broadway event, along with a discounted ticket to that evening’s performance of FUN HOME. Having these opportunities for student actors truly embodies the mission of our community programs department here at the Patel Conservatory. The students were attentive, eager and appreciative of the opportunity. It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear that those young men received a Critic’s Choice for the scene at districts.”

For one whole week, almost 8,000 Thespians—a drama honors society—descend on The Straz and downtown Tampa to compete, meet each other, make friends and enjoy the opportunity to perform in one of The Straz’s gorgeous, state-of-the-art theaters.

We wish the actors of PVT Wars well as they compete in the state festival, as we do for all the talented students coming here for another hectic, exhilarating, fun-filled, madcap week that is Thespians at The Straz.

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This Is What It Looks Like to Change a Child’s Life

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On the far side of the indoor basketball court, a line of wobbly-kneed elementary school kids stomps through a sequence of shuffle-step, shuffle-step with their dance teacher clapping time. Their shiny, tiny tap shoes clobber the gymnasium with sounds, their faces an endearing mix of intense concentration and unadulterated joy.

Out of context, this line of adorable grade schoolers looks like any other kids’ dance class, but there is a stark difference: these children are in the temporary safety of Metropolitan Ministries’ shelter, their lives upended by homelessness, domestic violence and other horrors beyond their control and not of their making.

Facing an uncertain future and abrupt changes, these children have this dance class in which to feel their joy, to be kids among kids, to have a normal, kind, loving thing happen to them at a predictable time every week. This one dance class helps hold their worlds together. This one dance class works its small, tireless magic to calm the beast of trauma ravaging their lives.

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“These kids, so many of them, have a history that should happen to no one,” says Janet Pantaleo, vice president – major gifts officer of Metropolitan Ministries (Met Min). “The transformational power of the arts, it’s tremendous. There’s no question about it. Yes, people have needs like food, shelter, rest … but humans need a creative outlet, too, to be alive. These children love their dance class, their music class, their theater class.”

Quietly and tenaciously, the Straz Center has offered performing arts classes for the children of Met Min since 2007. Today, we offer in-school and afterschool programs. We are there for hip-hop class, tap class, ballet class, music and theater. We are there when homeless children need hope, need a way to communicate without violence, need to feel confident and hear a roomful of people applauding their achievement.

“The kids have been blessed, very, very blessed to have been given this opportunity to have performing arts classes. How intimidating is it to stand up in front of people and do a tap dance or speak your part of a play? But they do it,” Pantaleo says, “and they gain confidence. Then they think, ‘if I can do that, what else can I do?’ Our relationship with The Straz makes us able to give well-rounded support. It’s mind, body and spirit.”

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Some of those elementary-aged kids clomping through shuffle-step at the end of the basketball court? They will utilize full scholarships to train at the Patel Conservatory – and who knows where they’ll be able to go after that.

Every one of our classes for Met Min children happen 100% through donor support. When you give to The Straz this holiday season, you’re also giving to Met Min and every one of our other 44 community partners. That’s what we call playing it forward.

Together, we can keep changing lives through the power of the performing arts.

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!

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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: