Performing in “The Nutcracker” is a monumental feat for any young ballerina, and especially so for one of the José Mateo Ballet Theatre’s playful Polichinelles.
Eva Gambon, 9, was diagnosed in utero with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect that affects the development of several structures on the left side of the heart muscle. But the Rockland resident hasn’t let that keep her from the stage. She is set to perform in eight shows, beginning Friday. Performances continue through Dec. 18 at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester.
“When I was younger — like 7, 6 — I used to be in love with ‘The Nutcracker.’ I would always watch it at night — like the movie, at home,” said Eva, a fourth grader at Memorial Park Elementary School. “And then me having the chance to dance in it is just amazing. It’s like me dancing in the movie.”
Eva’s mother, Jill Gambon, said grace comes naturally to her daughter, who has trained in ballet for the past six years. Eva’s introduction to ballet was prompted by her love for dance, as well as by physical limitations — she’s undergone five open heart surgeries at Boston Children’s Hospital and now has a pacemaker. When blood thinners prevented her daughter from participating in contact-heavy sports like soccer, Gambon recalled the dance lessons of her youth and encouraged Eva to try it out.
“She stuck with it,” Gambon said. “It was good exercise for her, but not too much. She could still keep up with the other kids. That’s what stuck with her. It was really good for her, helped a lot with confidence and feeling like she was part of a group.”
The decision to join “The Nutcracker” resulted from a conversation Gambon had with another parent this past summer at Dream Day, a camp on Cape Cod for children with life-threatening illnesses. The parent proposed Eva join José Mateo after seeing her dance, and Eva was very enthusiastic. After all, Eva had chosen ballet after also trying out jazz and tap, once even performing at a Celtics game.
“In tap, I’d always hurt myself with the tap shoes,” Eva said. “Sometimes I would kick up and I’d kick my leg and it’d really hurt. Or I’d step on my toes and it’d really hurt because the bottom of the shoes were metal.”
Ballet, with its alluring tulle and soft shoes was the right fit.
“I love all the pretty dresses and costumes that I get to wear,” said Eva, who is with the South Shore Ballet Theatre in Hanover. “[Ballet] is kind of not super duper fast or super duper slow. It’s at the right pace of dance.”
Eva’s passion for ballet is evidenced by her chipper tone and, according to the production’s artistic director and choreographer José Mateo, her attentiveness and quick improvement. Playing a Polichinelle (one of the little dancers who emerge from under Mother Ginger’s skirt in Act II of “Nutcracker”) requires a mastery of complex formations and spatial awareness, which Mateo said Eva works hard to achieve.
“I think she’s very animated and, I think, very motivated by what she has to do in this production. . . . The kids are so joyful, and she certainly is among those that are visibly enjoying their involvement,” Mateo said.
Her achievements also signify changes to the field itself, according to Mateo.
“Unfortunately, historically the ballet world has not been very inclusive. And I think that’s an inherent part of our own organization’s mission, is to take this very formerly elitist kind of activity and really make it accessible to everyone and to really try to thoroughly engage each and every person through very deliberate inclusion,” Mateo said.
For Gambon, it means seeing her daughter thrive on stage. Judging by the family’s enthusiasm, this year marks Eva’s first “Nutcracker” appearance but likely not her last.
“You just see all that hard work,” Gambon said. “Some days [Eva] has bad days when she doesn’t want to do it anymore, and then you see the culmination of it. You see the look on her face. It’s just, ‘Yeah, this is it. This is why we do this. This is why you love this.’ ”