“I got the part! I’m Clara!”
Like many young girls inspired by visions of Sugar Plum Fairies and dancing snowflakes, Fiona Wada-Gill dreamed of becoming a ballerina. The Lexington girl officially realized that dream earlier than most — three years ago, at the age of 12, when she landed the starring role of Clara in Boston Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”
The following year, she again was cast as Clara, and that time, author Lise Friedman and Charlestown photographer Mary Dowdle were there to chronicle her experience in photos and text. The resulting book, “Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story, Starring the Dancers of the Boston Ballet,” published this fall by Viking, traces Wada-Gill’s experience from pre-audition classes through opening night.
Dowdle came up with the idea for “Becoming a Ballerina” after documenting, for herself, her own children’s participation in a “Nutcracker” production. Friedman, her collaborator on an earlier book, “Break a Leg! The Kids’ Guide to Acting and Stagecraft,” seemed a natural partner on the project.
For Friedman, a former dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and an adjunct professor at New York University with several arts-related books to her credit, the subject matter was “very familiar territory.” She remembers her own early fever to dance, starting classes at the age of 4.
“I wanted to approach this book in a fresh way, bring what it means to be a young dancer into the foreground with a real person who has a real life, make that feel true, and convey the magic of being in the theater, which has its own set of rules and emotion and reality,” Friedman says. “The book puts a frame around two stories — the story of a kid and her life as a dancer, and the story of ‘The Nutcracker,’ with glimpses into the ballet and the production.”
Boston Ballet School director Margaret Tracey helped Dowdle and Friedman find just the right dancer, giving them access to classes and auditions.
“It was obvious when we saw Fiona,” Friedman recalls. “She really stuck out. She’s an engaging, down-to-earth, appealing kid, as well as a gifted young dancer. There’s no pretense. She has a lovely quality as a person and a dancer. Fiona had been one of four Claras the year before, so we were all confident she would be one of them that year as well.”
“Becoming a Ballerina,” geared for ages 7 and up, paints a vivid portrait of Wada-Gill’s artistic life, the years of balancing intensive dance training with homework demands and social activities. The story is told as a first-person account by Wada-Gill, but Friedman wrote the text, shaping and interpolating from her interviews with Wada-Gill as well as a blog the young dancer wrote, documenting her thoughts and experiences. In the book, Wada-Gill recalls a turning point shortly before entering sixth grade, her first summer on pointe: “It didn’t feel like just a hobby anymore. I was in class every day, from nine in the morning until three or four o’clock in the afternoon. I became serious about getting stronger.”
That avidity is something Dowdle and Friedman recognized. “She’s being driven from within herself,” Dowdle says.
Though Wada-Gill had had parts in previous “Nutcracker” productions with Boston Ballet, the role of Clara was a major milestone.
“My older sister was Clara and she really enjoyed it,” Wada-Gill says by phone, chatting from the car on the way home from a long day of school and dance classes. “I was hoping to follow in her footsteps.”
Wada-Gill is now 15 and a sophomore at Lexington High School. Having grown out of the Clara role, she is a Sugar Plum attendant this year in Boston Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” She also has what Boston Ballet artistic director and “Nutcracker” choreographer Mikko Nissinen calls a “mini-ballerina role,” the newly choreographed part of the lead reindeer.
“It’s technically difficult and it’s a bit of a solo,” Wada-Gill says. “For a brief period, I’m onstage by myself. Having this experience, to be in a professional environment with some of the most amazing dancers in the world, it’s just a pleasure to enjoy what you do.” She plans to continue her training at Boston Ballet and begin her professional ballet career in a couple of years.
While “Becoming a Ballerina” colorfully evokes the excitement and organized chaos of eight-hour dress rehearsals and backstage preparations, it also notes the physical pain involved. “Whenever I get new pointe shoes my feet get sore,” Wada-Gill says in the book. “Sometimes they hurt so much that I want to cry.” The story touches on personal sacrifices, too: “I don’t get to hang out after school or on weekends, because I’m always in class or rehearsal. I miss going to birthday parties and the movies, being in school talent shows, sleepovers — normal stuff.”
Two years later, normal stuff is still a challenge for Wada-Gill, who dances six days a week.
“I’m exhausted every day,” she says, “and the book shows what I have to deal with and the extreme competitive environment.”
A typical weekday for her now means rising early, sometimes extra early to do homework before school starts at 7:30 a.m. She is out at 2:25 p.m., and by 3 p.m., she and her mother, Noriko Wada, are on the road to Boston for dance classes. Most nights, she’s not home until 9 or 9:30. She’s back in the South End on Saturday for Pilates, technique and ensemble classes, and sometimes rehearsals. Sunday is usually reserved for homework, chores, and piano, which she studies with her mother, a pianist and former opera company administrator, whom she credits with supporting her dream yet keeping her grounded, making sure she gets enough sleep and eats well.
Wada-Gill’s schedule might strike most teens as grueling and socially restrictive, but she seems to be thriving.
“I’m really happy to go to ballet every day,” she says. Nonetheless, she admits, “Sometimes I just wish there were more than 24 hours in a day. Sometimes I wish I could see my school friends, but I have friends at the ballet. Even though it’s a very competitive world around me, we still have fun.”