By Tessa Raebeck
The beautiful swan dances across the stage, slowly succumbing to a graceful death as the ballerina’s performance brings the audience to tears. When the curtain is called, the room whispers its wonder over where the Hampton Ballet Theatre School (HBTS) found such a talented professional. As she bows, the ballerina smiles; it appears this professional has braces.
Just 14 years old and in her freshman year of high school, Rose Kelly has been dancing with Sara Jo Strickland, affectionately called Miss Sara by her dancers at HBTS, since she was a toddler.
“I feel very special,” said Miss Sara, surrounded by young dancers in her Bridgehampton studio, “because I’ve developed her for years and to see it pay off…it’s happening.”
Before she could read or write, Rose could dance. As she grew, so did her dedication.
Throughout the years, Rose’s mother, Rachel Kelly, would ask her time and again, “Do you want to do ballet?”
“Of course I want to do ballet,” her daughter would respond. “Are you kidding me?”
When Miss Sara decided to open her own school, HBTS, in 2007, the Kelly’s followed her there.
“I’ve done it with her my whole life,” Rose says of Miss Sara. “So she is very special to me. A very special person and teacher and I feel like I have a connection with her.”
That connection was forged over the years through countless hours of studio time. Rose is in Miss Sara’s studio almost every day. She takes four ballet classes and one point class each week, in addition to rehearsal time for a spring show, “Peter and the Wolf” in the summer and “The Nutcracker” each holiday season.
When HBTS did its inaugural Nutcracker performance in 2009, Rose, about 10 at the time, was the school’s first Clara.
“That was fun for me to give her that role,” says Miss Sara, smiling at her pupil. “It’s a great memory,” adds Rose.
Next weekend, HBTS will present its fifth annual production of Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic. It is the company’s biggest performance yet, with a cast of over 100 dancers. This year, Rose has advanced to play the Snow Queen, Marzipan and the Dew Drop Princess.
“I’m very excited,” said Miss Sara, “because I see all those years from two and a half up are now coming to fruition.”
Rose will dance the Dew Drop number with her longtime dance partner Vincenzo James Harty, who has also been dancing with Miss Sara since he was a toddler. Along with Rose and Harty, three other girls, Maggie Swan and twins Caitlin and Abigail Hubbell, form a group of veteran HBTS dancers Miss Sara considers the leaders of her school.
“When you watch them in class dancing together,” said Miss Sara. “It’s like they are the same people…they have the same style.”
Last year was the first time the group danced timed on point (on the very tips of their toes) and this year their technique has “jumped two levels,” their teacher said.
“Their training has brought them to a new level, so I’m just excited to see them step on stage with renewed confidence,” said Miss Sara, beaming with pride. “So not only do I have this great older group, all the younger kids are following them…they really set a great example.”
In preparation for “The Nutcracker,” Miss Sara’s group of leaders have attended rehearsals, which can last up to three hours, every Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday – in addition to the five classes they take each week.
One would think Rose, who is in the studio every day, would revel in her rare time off, but she misses ballet on the days she doesn’t dance.
“When we have a break and we don’t have ballet,” Rose said, “I feel kind of like there’s nothing to do.”
When asked what her favorite part of ballet is, she cannot pin down one answer.
“I love the music and I love the dances and just how you move to it,” she said, adding, “I just love everything about dance.”
That love has been evident since the beginning.
“There are certain kids that have personalities that kind of relate to ballet,” explained Miss Sara. “She just had that calmness and the regimen didn’t bother her. She could pay attention at a young age…She just took to it – the music, the training – it just came really naturally to her…She just loves it, as you can tell.”
The love of dance is fundamental to HBTS and Miss Sara’s teaching philosophy. Her signature style, which focuses on freely dancing from the heart rather than being bound by strict technique, is well represented in her pupils.
The HBTS style was epitomized by Rose’s performance as the swan in last year’s spring show, “Carnival of Animals.”
“Talk about…using her technique to create something beautiful,” said Miss Sara.
“Watching her grow up has been amazing.”
The Hampton Ballet Theatre School will present Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” on Friday, December 13 at 7 p.m., Saturday, December 14 at 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. and Sunday, December 15 at 2 p.m. at the John Drew Theater at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Tickets can be reserved by calling 1-888-933-4287 or visiting hamptonballettheatreschool.com.