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Dancer first from Sumter to be cast as lead in Columbia City Ballet's Nutcracker in a decade

BY KAYLA ROBINS
kayla@theitem.com
Posted 11/18/19
When she comes out for the first time in the gold dress and matching bow, her friends, party girls and gum drops gush compliments to "pretty Clara," but that is not her name. It has been more than a decade since a Sumter dancer has been cast as …

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Dancer first from Sumter to be cast as lead in Columbia City Ballet's Nutcracker in a decade

Posted

When she comes out for the first time in the gold dress and matching bow, her friends, party girls and gum drops gush compliments to "pretty Clara," but that is not her name.

It has been more than a decade since a Sumter dancer has been cast as the lead child role in Columbia City Ballet's Nutcracker, which performs in Columbia and tours to six cities, including at Sumter's Patriot Hall on Saturday. Then came Miyah LaGrant.

"I always wanted to do Clara in the Nutcracker because it's such a big ballet, and it's such an honor to get Clara," the 11-year-old said during rehearsal Sunday at Miss Libby's School of Dance and Gymnastics, which has been partnering with CCB for 20 years by hosting auditions and rehearsals. "I knew I had enough training and wanted a different role and to try something new."

CCB's rendition is the Midlands' largest production of Nutcracker and the longest continuously running performing arts event in the state. Executive and Artistic Director William Starrett brings in the company's 59th year a festive family friendly ballet featuring a live unicorn, snowfall and a massive cast that has been rehearsing for weeks to bring Clara's magical dreams to life on stage in an adventure with mischievous mice and dancing sweets.

Adults cast in the roles travel to each city, which starts in Sumter before heading to Savannah, Georgia, Lancaster, Camden, Florence and Hartsville, putting on the performance with a separate cast of kids in each city. According to Jordan Hawkins, who both dances with CCB and in the show and is a dance instructor at Miss Libby's, the kids cast list in Sumter - the only non-Columbia city to have two performances instead of one - reaches into the high 90s.

Hawkins said Starrett, the director, saw promise in LaGrant. While the role of Clara is most often a dancer from Columbia, LaGrant will do the traveling to each city this year.

She follows the likes of Sumter's Carter Dwight, who played Clara from 2007-09, Maggie Lowery and Savannah Grace Dubose. Dwight, who now attends Clemson University, started dancing in Nutcracker when she was 4, as did Hawkins. LaGrant is in her fifth year of dancing, already making up for lost time.

"Technically, she's amazing. She has great natural facility, but she also works hard. That balance is already there, which is kind of hard to find sometimes. Because as much as she has natural ability, she also has the mindset of how do I work it? How do I even improve on that? She's super special, and she has such a passion for someone who hasn't been dancing that long," Hawkins said.

LaGrant has been traveling to Columbia every Thursday and Saturday to rehearse with the CCB company and take private lessons with Starrett. Hawkins has been at Miss Libby's for rehearsals the last five Sundays. The company will travel to Sumter later this week for a dress rehearsal before Saturday's two performances, culminating a process that started with auditions in September and kicking off LaGrant's tour.

The young dancer, who used to go to Willow Drive Elementary School and is now homeschooled, is an always-learner. She knows the verbiage and the moves like they were ingrained since birth and is quick to point out what's hardest for her. This is her first year doing point.

"But the thing about point is if you just hold your body in one place, you'll be able to turn," she said on Sunday, the day after a 10-hour rehearsal in Columbia.

She says she is shy. Just like stage fright, once she starts talking about dancing or once she stands up and turns, kicks her pointed toe above her head, twirls from one end of the studio to the other, you forget that she hasn't been dancing for 11 years, that she is 11.

She said she has enjoyed learning new moves for this role and dancing with new people. She wants to be a ballerina or modern dancer, and she studies her craft. When she's not practicing, she's watching different performances of the Nutcracker to look for details like timing or watching other studios on YouTube or studying Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre.

LaGrant has to learn acting and dancing at the same time and how to face the audience when she acts so her non-verbal script isn't lost to the curtains.

"I wanted to have something to do after school, and I really wanted to move because I'm very active," LaGrant said.

She started taking lessons at Miss Libby's because her cousin is an instructor, and she surprised herself by liking to learn choreography.

"I like moving my body in different ways and learning new things and pushing myself, and I just like improving," she said.

On Sunday, The Sumter Item photographer Micah Green asked Libby Singleton, studio co-owner and school director at Miss Libby's, and LaGrant to look at a photo he took of LaGrant to make sure her leg was straight enough over her head. He wouldn't want to publish a photo of her with bad technique.

"Looks great," Singleton said.

"No," LaGrant said, earning a laugh of respect from her teacher.

The 11-year-old seemed fit for the lead role as she matter-of-factly critiqued herself, the self-proclaimed shy girl speaking up to ensure perfection.

Walking to center stage, she readied herself for take two. Tipping onto her toe, Clara twirled.