‘Nutcracker’ stars: Sur­viv­ing car crash, find­ing new pas­sion

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - Matthew J. Palm

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.”

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