My heart must have skipped a beat when I saw Nadia Mara turn and start to approach me.
I knew who she was — one of Atlanta Ballet’s featured dancers — and I also knew why she was walking toward me. It was two years ago, and I was sitting up front at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, live-tweeting the Atlanta Ballet dress rehearsal. Just before Nadia reached me, and just before I set my computer aside, I remember quickly sending out this ominous tweet: “Uh-oh.”
Moments later, she reached me and held out her hand. It was an invitation and against my better judgment, I rose from my seat and allowed her to guide me to the stage. She carefully led me up the short flight of stairs. The next thing I knew, she bounded out to the middle of the empty stage and began to move to the heavy techno music that blared from the sound system. She gestured with her hands for me to join her.
I took a deep breath, sighed and whispered the two-word expletive widely considered the shorthand version of the Serenity Prayer.
And with that, I summoned a giant leap of courage and raced out to join her.
NOW IN HER NINTH YEAR AT ATLANTA BALLET, Nadia Mara has established herself as one of the company’s most prominent dancers. Resident choreographer Helen Pickett — an in-demand dance maker across the United States and Europe — volunteered recently that Mara is on her top five list of favorite dancers to work with.
“She has amazing technique, and she also has the ability to convey emotions,” Pickett said. “I just love Nadia.”
Mara was born about as far away from the Atlanta Ballet stage as one can get.
A native of Montevideo, Uruguay, it was as though Mara was born to dance. “My mom used to say that when she was pregnant, she’d have a classical music station on the radio, and I’d be moving,” says Mara. “Then if she changed the station, I’d stop. They used to say, ‘Maybe she’ll be a ballet dancer.’”
After Mara was born, the same thing would happen: every time the classical music station was playing on the radio, she’d either sit in rapt attention or dance to it. So her parents, who had named her for five-time Olympic gold medal gymnast Nadia Comăneci, decided to let her take ballet lessons at the age of three.
By the age of seven, Mara was taking private lessons from the principal dancer of the National Ballet of Uruguay, which often lasted eight hours and deep into the night. Her father, Osvaldo Mara — a prominent artist in Uruguay — would sit outside at 11 p.m., hearing the same bits of music played over and over and over, hoping his daughter would soon be released from practice.
She had homework to do, and he needed to sleep.
The logical next step for Mara was to enroll in Uruguay’s National School of Ballet. She was reluctant to audition — if she failed, then her dream of being a dancer was over. “At least this way, I could dance all day and no one would destroy my soul,” she says.
Her mother finally resorted to trickery. The school had an age limit of 12 and on the morning of Nadia’s 12th birthday, her mother grabbed a bag and told her that they were going out to buy a present. Instead, she took her daughter to the national school to audition; the bag was filled with Mara’s dance gear. Afterward, her name was the first called on the list of students who passed the audition.
Mara dreamed of moving to the United States to be a professional dancer, fueled by the extensive video library she’d collected of performances by American dance companies. She studied those videos the way Peyton Manning studies game film.
When she was 17, Gyula Pandi, a former member of the Hungarian National Ballet who was teaching at the North Carolina School of the Arts, traveled to Uruguay on a scouting trip and held auditions. Pandi announced he planned to take one student back to North Carolina with him. “This is it, this is it,” an excited Mara told herself. “No matter what, I need to go back to the States with this guy.”
Pandi asked them to do the Sugar Plum Fairy dance from the George Balanchine version of The Nutcracker. Though many consider him the father of American ballet, Balanchine’s reputation did not extend to Uruguay. Mara, however, was intimately familiar with the choreographer and his version of The Nutcracker — she’d studied it on video.
“The timing is very difficult in that piece, the tempos are up and down,” she says. “He said that whoever gets it right is going to go with him. And I did it. Afterwards, he said, ‘You are very talented and I would love to work with you.’”
She ran downstairs and raced to her father with the question she’d always dreamed of asking: “Can I go to the States?”
FOR HER FIRST FEW MONTHS IN America, Mara stayed with Pandi and his wife — they both taught dance at the School of the Arts — and he gave her private lessons to acclimate her to American-style ballet. Her first professional experience was with the North Carolina Dance Theatre, where she stayed for a year.
“It didn’t feel like the right place for me,” Mara says. “It didn’t feel like home. For me, being so far away from home, I needed some place where I felt supported and there was a family environment.”
The company told her about Atlanta Ballet and offered to help her get an audition.
Mara rode with a friend five hours to Atlanta on a Saturday morning. Instead of being sent to the audition as she’d expected, Mara was directed to a company dance class being led by John McFall, Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director. After the class, McFall walked up to her. “Who are you?” he asked.
“Hi, I’m Nadia,” she responded.
“What are you doing here?” McFall asked.
“Actually, I want to audition for the company,” she told him.
“Really?” McFall replied. “Do you want to stay here?”
“Okay,” McFall answered. “We’ll work on it.”
It was that quick. “Everything happened so fast, it was like dominoes,” recalls Mara. “I went home that weekend — I was living with a host family in North Carolina — and packed.”
Her first production as a company member was Giselle, which happens to be Mara’s favorite ballet, and she was the understudy to the dancer who portrayed Giselle. “It was my dream to be Giselle; I have eight versions of Giselle on DVD from different companies,” she says. “They gave me one show, in the afternoon on a Sunday. My parents came all the way from Uruguay to see me. It was the best thing ever.”
TWO YEARS AGO, ATLANTA BALLET performed Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, and will restage it April 17 to 19 at the Cobb Energy Centre for the Modern Choreographic Voices program. Also on the bill will be restagings of last year’s production of Alexei Ratmansky’s Seven Sonatas and Gina Patterson’s Quietly Walking, which received its world premiere here in 2011.
There are things that happen in Minus 16 that are intended to be a surprise if you’ve never before seen the work. For those who want to preserve that element of surprise, here is your spoiler alert and warning: Read no further.
For those still with me, Minus 16 concludes when about 20 members of the audience are brought onstage to dance. One of the most meaningful moments of my life happened during the dress rehearsal in 2013, when Nadia plucked me out of my seat to dance. I’ve written about that experience from my perspective, but I was interested in the vantage point of my dance partner.
We talked during a lunch break last week, moments after the company had completed a rehearsal run-through of Minus 16. She told me the point of the audience interaction is to bring them into the experience and out of their comfort zone, to challenge them to do something they wouldn’t normally do. The dancers aren’t allowed to touch their partners, or speak to them. It’s all about finding an instant connection and, hopefully, pulling the audience member out of their inhibitions.
“The special thing about dancing with the audience is getting to know people, and how they react,” Nadia says. “Sometimes it doesn’t work; it depends on the person. Our job is to make that person comfortable.”
Her task during Minus 16 was to find someone on the first three rows, preferably someone tall. At the dress rehearsal, I was the only person to fit that bill. “We didn’t know each other then, we’d never met,” Nadia says. “I held out my hand and what I felt from you was, ‘Oh, my god, no way.’ But I looked at you and thought: it’s going to be okay, just trust that it’s going to be okay.”
The first few moments were very stiff and awkward. She was the first dancer to return to the stage, and we were alone there for at least 30 to 45 seconds. My main goal was to avoid embarrassment — I have many harsh memories of elementary school dance classes — and I went into my version of the “white guy’s overbite” dance, determined to at least stay on the musical beat.
Then our eyes locked, and something began to change. “I remember exactly the eye connection that we had,” Nadia says. “I was trying to tell you, this is fun, this will be great; this will be one of those things where you say, ‘Oh, I did this in my life.’ I wanted to give you an experience.”
I remember the spotlights reflecting off her eyes as if they were sparkling stars, and I got lost in her look of absolute joy and anticipation. There came a time when I was no longer thinking about where I was and what I was doing, I was just doing it. “I could see the change in your eyes,” Nadia says. “I could feel the energy change. I felt it right away.”
About halfway through our dance, Nadia made the decision that still astounds me to this day — she stepped back and leapt into the air, confident that I would catch her. “I looked in your eyes and thought, ‘I’m going to jump on him,’” she says, laughing. “And you were ready. You caught me and I thought: yes, this is what it’s all supposed to be about.”
Of all the performances of Minus 16 two years ago, it turned out I was her only willing dance partner.
“We were so connected, I couldn’t get that connection with everybody,” she says. “So, for me, our dance was special even though it was dress rehearsal. I thought, oh, this is going to be so much fun; it’s the best part ever; it’s going to be like this every single time. Guess what? It was not like that. We just had a great connection. It was like we were lost for a few seconds. It felt really powerful.”
A FEW WEEKS AFTER THAT SHOW, I happened by Atlanta Ballet’s studio to watch a rehearsal. During a break, Tara Lee walked over and we started talking about my adventures with Minus 16.
I mentioned the connection I’d felt onstage that night with Nadia. “And I don’t even know her,” I said. “We still haven’t met.”
A thoughtful look crossed Lee’s face for a couple of seconds, then she burst into a smile. “But you have met,” she exclaimed. “You danced.”
Nadia and I did eventually introduce ourselves and we have become buds in the months since we danced; we share a very intense common experience from Minus 16. For us, however, there will be no encore this weekend. The dancers aren’t allowed to invite up ringers; besides, as Nadia points out, how does one replicate an experience such as that?
“I don’t want to ruin that first moment we had,” she told me. “It was so perfect, I don’t want something to get in-between it. I just want to have that memory, that something special happened.”
Indeed. For a few very magical moments, she allowed me to enter her world. And, yes, I can say, “I did this in my life. I once caught a flying ballerina.”