From Clara to Dew Drop in Seven Years:
An interview with Boston Ballet’s Lauren Herfindahl
It’s rare for a young girl who plays the role of Clara in the Boston Ballet production of The Nutcracker (choreography by Mikko Nissinen) to rise through the ranks of the company and appear in an adult featured role. In the last two decades only two dancers have done it. The first was former principal Jennifer Gelfand, who played Clara in the 1980s and retired in 2003. The second was Sarah Lamb, now principal with the Royal Ballet, who played Clara in the early ’90s and became a Boston Ballet principal in 2003.
Enter Lauren Herfindahl, the newest member of this exclusive club. In 2007 she played Clara, the little girl whose dream is the story of the ballet. During the following years she traded in Clara’s party dress and nightgown for the costumes of a variety of characters, graduating in 2014 to the dazzling pale blue tutu of Dew Drop, lead dancer of the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Second only in importance to the Sugar Plum Fairy, Dew Drop heads the flower corps in dancing to some of the best-known music Tchaikovsky ever wrote.
Herfindahl, who made her debut as a mouse when she was 10 years old, has appeared in the Boston Ballet Nutcracker for almost half the holiday seasons of her young life. Recently she talked about the roles she has played in this ballet over the last nine years as she progressed from student to trainee, apprentice, corps member, and second soloist.
In which Nutcracker roles did you appear as a child?
The first roles I did were mouse and polichinelle in 2005 when I was 10 years old. In the previous Boston Ballet production [the current one opened in 2012], I was the first mouse that comes out onstage after Clara falls asleep in Act I. I also played the “kissy poli” role; she’s the polichinelle who throws kisses to the audience at the end of the Mother Ginger scene. It’s a special little part.
In 2006 I was one of the party girls. They are onstage for the whole party scene, which is about 20 minutes long. Those roles offer children a great opportunity to develop their acting skills. As a party girl you have to be engaged in the scene and tell the story, which allows you develop as an actor as well as a dancer. You have dance steps that you have to do, but when Harlequin, the ballerina doll, or the dancing bear come onstage, nobody tells you exactly what to do. You have the freedom to react as a person, and when you have real reactions, that’s what tells the story to the audience.
Tell me about being Clara.
I did Clara for only one year, and that was in 2007 when I was 12 years old. A bunch of my friends and I auditioned for the part, and we knew the results would be sent by mail about a week afterward. I remember one day I called my friends and asked whether they had gotten their mail yet, and later on that day the letter was in my mailbox. It was especially exciting because there hadn’t been a student Clara in cast A for a long time; company members were doing the part. The year before I played Clara, [principal] Misa [Kuranaga] did opening night and other featured performances, and a student did the rest. So this was the first year in a while that students did all the performances.
How challenging is the role?
Clara is onstage for almost the entire ballet, and for a child that is a huge responsibility. She has to tell the story throughout the production. There’s an enormous learning curve and so many opportunities to explore how to do it. When you’re a professional dancer, you have to be able to maintain a character onstage otherwise it looks dead to the audience. The earlier you can learn how to do that the better.[See a short clip of Herfindahl as Clara (1:32): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPu5lfTaXmY ]
When you played Clara, which company members did you interact with?
I think Melanie Atkins was my Frau [Silberhaus, Clara’s mother] and my Drosselmeier was Jared Redick. As Sugar Plum I vividly remember Larissa [Ponomarenko]; she was my favorite. I looked up to her so much and thought, “I hope I can be that someday.” I think the beginning of the second act is very special, when Sugar Plum welcomes Clara to her realm.
Has the role of Clara changed since you played it?
Yes, the choreography is definitely not as intricate or difficult as it used to be. For example, I had more grand jetes.
What happened the year after you played Clara?
I was too tall to do it again. There are height requirements for all the children’s parts. The costumes are only made in certain sizes. The year after I played Clara I probably grew three inches. I’m not a short ballerina; I’m five feet, eight inches. That’s pretty tall, though not the tallest.
Why is being in The Nutcracker a unique experience?
What’s really magical about The Nutcracker is that that there are so many roles, so many people involved, and so many characters and layers to the ballet. Aside from Sugar Plum and her cavalier’s grand pas de deux, there’s really no time when there are only two people onstage; it’s a collective, group production.
What roles did you do next?
In 2008 I was one of the tea girls [in the Chinese dance] and the shepherdess who comes out with the little lambs in the Pastorale [“Danse des mirlitons”].
In 2009 I did the shepherdess again and Sugar Plum attendant. At that time there was a little bit more to the role of Sugar Plum attendant than there is now.
Wasn’t there a year when the attendants wore little whipped cream hats?
I think that was the year the production was at the Colonial Theatre . [The production moved to the Boston Opera House in 2005.] When I did the role, we all had little mini Barbie-pink tutus as opposed to a big tutu. For a student, there was quite a bit of dancing in that role. Shepherdess and Sugar Plum attendant are the first pointe-shoe roles students do.
Did you attend Boston Ballet School throughout your training?
Yes, I joined in 2004 when my family moved here from Washington State. We lived on the South Shore [of Massachusetts] when the Norwell studio was still there. [It closed in 2010.] I was at that studio for three years and then moved to the Boston studio.
It must have been a long haul to come into Boston.
Yes, my mom did it every day. I still look back and say, “Mom, how did you do that?” It not easy to have your kid be dedicated to something that takes up so much time and energy. For a kid to have a supportive family is really helpful.
What roles did you do in 2010?
I was a trainee that year, so I did Sugar Plum attendant again and added snow corps, my first company part, which was really exciting.
Tell me about the snow itself.
We have two types of snow onstage: the paper flakes, which are treated with flame retardant and taste terrible, and sparkly pieces that are like bits of foil balloons, which are really beautiful, but very slippery. So you’ve got the snow that gets in your mouth and tastes bad and then you’ve got the snow on the floor that you’re trying not to slip on. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve fallen in the snow.
Snow scene is one of my favorites in The Nutcracker — it’s so beautiful, and it’s the first time you get to see a lot of dancing since Act I is mostly acting. Snowflakes are some of the most difficult corps parts. You’re jumping and running, and you get out of breath doing it, which makes it seem so worthwhile because you feel as if you’re really giving yourself to the audience.
What were your next roles?
In 2011 I was asked to join Boston Ballet II [the apprentice company]. It was a big deal to be offered BB II after only one year as a trainee because most dancers stay in the trainee program for two years. In BB II I did lots of snowflakes and flowers [in “Waltz of Flowers”].
Isn’t the snowflake choreography quite intricate?
Yes, there are ten snowflakes, five on each side, and there’s this one moment when you’re crossing each other, eyeballing the space you’re headed toward, and hoping you’re going to fit into it. For the most part, though, we don’t have major traffic issues. As far as the music is concerned, there are so many threes and sixes that counting is really difficult, and getting us all to be together and on the music is a bit trickier than it is in “Waltz of the Flowers,” but I love the snow-scene music.
Which roles did you do in your second year in BB II?
I did party mom [Frau Silberhaus], snowflake, and flower corps. I enjoyed doing party mom because it hadn’t been that long since I was in the school, so it was fun to connect with the kids. I was thinking, “I remember being one of you and looking up to my parents, and now I am one of your parents.” That was kind of cool.
What happened in 2013?
I was promoted from BB II to full member of the company. That year Nutcracker was really exciting for me because as a corps member you can do so many divertissements and so many performances. My new roles were pastorale; demi-snow, which is one of two snowflakes that have an extra dance [a demi-soloist role]; and lead flower. These were in addition to party mom, snow corps, and flower corps.
And the next year?
In 2014 I did Dew Drop for the first time. That was a big deal. Dew Drop is one of my favorite roles, not just in The Nutcracker, but in general. She’s really an individual among the flowers.
First of all, you can’t miss her because of her costume, which is one of the most sparkly tutus I’ve ever seen or worn. When you put it on, it gives you a sense of confidence, but it has so many crystals on it that the bodice is really stiff. I call it the suit of armor. It takes a bit of getting used to, so I like to put it on early to try to warm it up. When you’re wearing it, you have to move a little bit differently. It’s difficult to do arabesque, for example, because you’ve got something hard in the back. I have to really pop my leg up to try to get it higher. All those sparkles and crystals come at a price.
What have you learned from watching other dancers as Dew Drop?
I realized that everyone has slightly different timing and interpretation. The role of Dew Drop has everything: quick foot work, turns, and jumps. I’m glad I started doing it while I’m still young so I can build on it. It helps get you ready for bigger roles, and it gives you the experience of doing fouettes onstage.
Who are your favorite Dew Drops in the company?
Misa [Kuranaga] is a favorite because she’s so sharp and quick and precise with her movement. I’ve watched a lot of dancers do the role, and I ask myself, “How can I take what they’re doing and apply it to me?” I like watching Lia [Cirio] because she always looks like she has a lot of fun doing the role. Ashley [Ellis] has beautiful port de bras in every role she does. Everyone brings something different, and I always enjoy watching my colleagues do it.
What parts of the role do you find most rewarding?
There’s this special moment after the turns when you have some quick foot work, and then you call your flowers, and everyone dances together. At that point you’re not just doing a solo; you’re out there with the two lead flowers and then the ten corps flowers, so you’re interacting with other dancers and acknowledging them. I think that if you don’t connect to the people you’re dancing with, the audience won’t connect with you.
The human aspect of being a dancer is important, and I think it comes from the ability to be genuine and not fake onstage. As an audience member, you can tell when performers enjoy what they’re doing and what they’re bringing to the audience. Dew Drop is a very bright and joyous role.