‘Nutcracker’ stars: Surviving car crash, finding new passion
The characters in “The Nutcracker,” from young Clara to the mysterious Drosselmeyer to the Sugar Plum Fairy are so familiar as to seem real. But behind the annual ballet productions are, of course, performers working to make the holidays brighter for audiences full of happy families.
This week, I met two of those performers from two different productions: Saaya Pikula Mason, who battled back from a car accident to rediscover a love of dance, and Daniel Henry who was introduced to the artform through an Orlando Ballet outreach program. Here are their stories.
Saaya Pikula Mason was a dance-happy 16-year-old in 2006 when a car crash on Dr. Phillips Boulevard tore her body apart.
“I was pretty defeated,” Mason recalls. “I gave up.”
It’s easy to understand why: The teen was left with a metal rod in her shattered leg, a broken hip held together with screws and a long recovery. It appeared that years of training in her native Japan, with Southern Ballet Theatre — the precursor to Orlando Ballet — and six years of instruction from Vasile Petrutiu at Central Florida Ballet were all for nothing; doctors told her she would never dance again.
“It’s not a time of my life I look back on,” Mason says.
But her mother saw that a light had gone out in her daughter’s eyes, and in 2008 she gave Mason a gift card toward a class at Central Florida Ballet.
“I didn’t really want to go,” Mason says. “I was really weak, I didn’t know if I would be able to do it.”
To her surprise, she had more mobility than she expected — and the memory of what dancing meant to her came flooding back.
“After my first class, I wanted to go back,” she says. “But I still wasn’t thinking it was possible to make it into a career.”
A major setback followed: A screw in her hip broke. More surgery was required. Another year of rest. But this time it was different; this time Mason wanted to get back to the barre.
And when she returned, Petrutiu was there for her, with extra classes and help.
For Saaya to consider never dancing again?” Petrutiu says. “No one can imagine the devastation on a soul just starting to spread its wings and soaring to new heights.”
They persevered. “Destiny has a sense of humor,” says Petrutiu. “Through Saaya’s strong will, her lifetime dedication, perseverance and sacrifice, she was able to overcome all of the odds after her accident.”
In 2012, Petrutiu helped her get a spot with a Romanian ballet troupe — and suddenly dance was her career.
“I was on the plane to Romania, and that’s when I realized, ‘I’m going to do this,’” she says.
Eventually, she returned to the U.S. to get married. Today, she’s a principal dancer with Virginia National Ballet in Manassas.
Now 30, Mason enjoys returning to her childhood stomping grounds to perform in Central Florida Ballet’s annual production. She’ll play the Snow Queen and also perform the Spanish dance. She’ll enjoy seeing “a lot of the faces I’ve grown up with” — and mom, who still lives here, will be in the audience. How does she feel about her daughter’s career, prompted by her gentle nudge?
“She’s thrilled about it,” Mason says. “She comes to all my shows.”
A STEPS student
Daniel Henry’s mother is also onboard with his interest in ballet. After all, the 11-year-old Sanford resident needs a chauffeur to get to classes.
“I like going, so I make my parents drive me,” says the sixth-grader at Millennium Middle School.
Henry got the ballet bug when Orlando Ballet’s STEPS program visited Midway Elementary, when he was a student. When he broke the news to mom, she was skeptical: “You’ve never even danced once,” he remembers her saying.
But she quickly came around. “Mom says she is proud because I used to be always playing video games.”
Now, he’s rehearsing for the role of Fritz, Clara’s troublemaking brother, in Orlando Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” The best part? “Getting to break the nutcracker!” he exclaims.
STEPS, which stands for Scholarship Training for the Enrichment of Primary Students, is a free 10-week residency that gives students in underserved communities an opportunity to study classical ballet and other dance genres. The curriculum introduces the fundamentals of dance and teaches discipline, focus, self-expression, confidence and cooperative learning.
Orlando Ballet has been expanding the program, which will have reached between 1,400 and 1,500 students by the end of the year. In the past four years, STEPS has grown from 3 sites to 42.
“Daniel’s positive attitude, passion for dance, and strong work ethic truly make him a standout,” says Orlando Ballet School director Phillip Broomhead. “I’m so thankful that Orlando Ballet has amazing community enrichment programs, like STEPS, that spark a love for dance in our local children and give them exposure to the performing arts.”
And Daniel is committed. “At first I wasn’t sure,” Daniel says. “But now I’m 100 percent with ballet.”
Daniel Henry will play Fritz in Orlando Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”