Ballerina steps up as holiday classic sets higher bar

It was 10 degrees and snowing in Montreal last February, and Kiara Felder was walking from an audition for a large ballet company. Her two-year apprenticeship with Atlanta Ballet was drawing to a close. She’d hoped to join the Southern troupe, but hadn’t heard anything. Felder had to be realistic.

Then her phone rang.

It was Artistic Director John McFall, with a “heads up” that soon she’d receive an official invitation to join Atlanta Ballet.

Felder felt as if a huge weight lifted off her shoulders. “You’ve made it,” she thought. The conservatories, the scholarships and the auditions were all worth it.

“I skipped a little, through the snow.”

But the prospect was daunting. “From here, you have to keep going up and up.”

When Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” makes its annual run at the Fox Theatre beginning Dec. 11, Felder will debut in two featured roles: the child heroine, Marya, and the sultry Arabian dancer.

It’s a step up for Felder within the ballet’s tiered system of roles that challenge dancers at successive levels. Like Felder, dancers across the metro area are rising from angels to party children, soldiers to flowers, and Dew Drops to Sugar Plum Fairies. Students in Atlanta Ballet’s Pre-Professional Division will take on a new Chinese variation.

Felder has the technical strength for both roles, but they require a different kind of confidence and risk. She must draw contrasting characters from her personality and, through her expressiveness, connect with an audience.

Felder and company veteran John Welker are one of five couples dancing the Arabian pas de deux. In a full cast rehearsal, they are spread across the large studio, finessing choreography to suit their individual styles.

Felder is all energy and focus, thin and muscular in ballerina pink with tights cut mid-thigh.

She’s a quick study, as Welker guides Felder in the physics of partnering — when to initiate a lift and where to press against him for support; which muscles to engage and which ones to release. The real challenge comes when Ballet Mistress Dale Shields coaches Felder on mood and intention.

Dancing to mysterious tones of woodwinds and strings, Felder travels across the floor with tiny, fast steps on point.

“Make sure the legs are rippling like water,” Shields says. “Don’t bang your toes into the floor.”

Dancer Tara Lee demonstrates, softening the knees to create a smooth, “snaky” feel. She shows Felder how to draw movement out with a sense of tension and resistance.

“It’s alluring,” Shields says. “Every step is a seduction.”

Outside of rehearsal, Felder has a bubbly personality, more like Marya. “I’m definitely more confident being fast, and jumping and turning … and bright character,” she said.

Felder moves and speaks in fluid spurts, and seems to have lots of “fast-twitch” muscle fibers, like a sprinter. At 22, she’s not sultry at all; she’s had little time for boyfriends since she became serious about a ballet career six years ago.

As early as age 9, Felder began following her older sister Carmen through a progression of “Nutcracker” roles with the Carolina Ballet, where Carmen now dances. They often draw support from each other, since African-American women are still a rarity in the classical ballet world.

“It can be kind of nerve-wracking and make you uncomfortable when you don’t really see people who look like you dancing onstage,” Felder said.

She hasn’t encountered overt barriers; only mental ones. Felder and her sister encourage each other not to let people’s opinions hold them back.

“Either people can judge or not judge — it’s fine,” she said. “We’re having our careers anyway.”

At 16, Felder became “obsessed” with having a ballet career during a summer program with New York City Ballet dancers. She convinced her parents to let her finish high school at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts; Felder subsequently earned a scholarship to attend Pacific Northwest Ballet School’s Professional Division.

The environment was competitive, with about 30 girls “all hungry for the same thing,” Felder said. In the two-year program’s final months, she began to worry. Audition season was underway, and Felder had no leads. She took advice from a friend: Don’t try to blend in. Be yourself.

Soon after, Atlanta Ballet offered her an apprenticeship.

Shields explained why they chose Felder from among hundreds who audition each year. “Physically, she’s beautiful — her lines, her feet. She had the right look, right away, that we were looking for.”

“Her technique is strong,” Shields said. “We wanted to see where she could go with that.”

Shields said Felder has to let go or “open up” in order to draw out her inner expressiveness. Finding both characters within her personality, and connecting with an audience, is a crucial step in Felder’s artistic maturation, Shields said.

Unlike companies that breed cookie-cutter dancers, Atlanta Ballet develops artists as individuals. Some thrive in this atmosphere; for others, it’s not a fit. As for Felder’s future in this environment, Shields said, “How she takes these next steps will determine that.”

To Felder, it feels like time to prove herself again. Starting next week, Felder hopes that, whether she’s playing a bright-eyed youngster or mature temptress, she’ll convince the audience that’s who she really is. The process can be uncomfortable, she said. “But I’m getting better at transforming where I am in my mind, just becoming the character.”

Felder remembers a breakthrough last year, rehearsing the “Nutcracker” Snow scene. Ballet Mistress Sarah Hillmer advised her to “just pretend,” Felder recalled. “Even if you’re not feeling it, or if it’s not true, you just kind of fake it, and you can convince people.”

In the next run-through, Felder thought, “I’m not going to ‘put on’ a smile; I’m going to, in every way possible, show how much I love dancing. I thought about the things I love and tried to transform them, and become a really expressive dancing snowflake.”

Afterward, Hillmer told Felder how much joy was evident in her dancing. “That was when I realized,” Felder said, “even if it’s the 90th time you’ve done Snow, you have to find inspiration somewhere, and just go with that in the moment, and be present.”

Kiara Felder is scheduled to perform as a Snowflake and as Sheperdess in Cast A, as Marya in Cast B and as Arabian dancer in Cast D. For details, visit: www.atlantaballet.com/tickets-performances/nutcracker

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