There are the little girls who prop a plastic tiara atop a messy bun and spin in stocking feet to sweep their skirts out, dreaming of becoming a princess one day.
And there are the girls who do the work to become one. Sure, they dreamed of pearls and pirouettes. But as they grew up, they missed proms and football games, foregoing pedicures for callouses, to be that princess. Under a spotlight. On a stage.
That girl is Vera Brenneman, a Riverside-Brookfield High School senior who is starring as Clara — a ballerina’s dream role — in Salt Creek Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker” this season.
In the Westmont dance school’s version of the Tchaikovsky ballet, Clara enters as a little girl who dreams of becoming a princess. Vera has performed both parts.
“There’s something about the stage, how the orchestra, the music feels surrounding you,” the 17-year-old said. “Inside you, it feels powerful and you don’t realize the audience is in front because it’s dark. But you’re dancing and the spotlight is on you and it’s like you’re in the magical world by yourself, performing and having the best time.”
Vera donned her first leotard at 3. Ballet, she said, is in her blood. Her mother, Julia Rhoads, a University of Chicago dance professor and founding artistic director of Lucky Plus Productions in Chicago, got her start as a company member of the San Francisco Ballet. Her grandmother, Kay Vee Rhoads, was a founding board member and former executive director of Salt Creek Ballet.
But Vera didn’t rest on those family laurels. She studies the Vaganova Method, a strict, Russian-based theory based on precision and body awareness.
“It’s technical — ballet looks so easy and it’s supposed to look like it takes zero effort to do the most insane things. It’s very hard,” she said.
“But I work really hard, and teachers see that, and they give me opportunities to try stuff.”
Her teachers say vulnerability and curiosity make her shine.
“Vera is a talented dancer who is also very versatile in different genres of dance,” said Erica De La O, Vera’s teacher and co-director of the production.
“Her versatility has really made her an artist of her own,” she said. “One of her main talents is her curiosity to keep exploring movement, and that has guided her to keep developing her qualities as Clara.
“She is also a senior and experienced in this role.”
To say the least. This season marks the fourth time Vera has performed the “princess” Clara role. In a way, she prepared her life for this.
When she was little and dancing the young Clara part, she and her friends would peek into classes and watch older girls rehearse, because they, too, dreamed of being that princess on stage, she said.
“I’d watch the older girls and think ‘wow, this is so amazing. I want that part.’”
Vera has performed multiple roles, including solos in “Swan Lake.” And, as De La O described: “She has many other roles, Spanish, Arabian, a snowflake and a Waltz soloist.”
“All have different qualities and I love that Vera understands how to elegantly transition from one role to another,” she said.
It’s a transition she negotiates in her everyday life as a dancer and senior at Riverside- Brookfield High School. She practices at least four hours each week day, including during her honors dance class and Orchesis, the school’s contemporary competition club. After school, practices at the studio typically run more than three hours, longer on Saturdays. When a performance is scheduled, Sundays, too, begin to fill up with rehearsals. For Vera, “The Nutcracker” practice began in September.
Schoolwork and a teen-sized social life are packed in around those hours. When her schoolwork is complete, Vera can jet off with her friends to football games or hang out on Friday and Saturday nights.
She missed her junior prom last year, but it wasn’t so bad, she said.
“One of the stage managers bought me a corsage. It was so cute.”
Still, she vowed, this year, it’s senior prom or bust.
“I’m going to make sure I’m there,” she laughed.
Dance is in Vera’s future, but so is architecture. A well-rounded liberal arts degree is important, she said, but there’s something special about the intersection of architecture and dance to this college-bound ballerina.
It’s something about movement and one’s body in space, Vera said. Like the way one feels when one enters an interesting room designed to direct a body to move, in contrast with “walking into a box,” she said. She doesn’t know exactly what a career in both dance and architecture would look like, but she has ideas.
She hopes to major in dance and minor in architecture. Maybe she’ll join a company and choreograph. And when the pas de deux and the arabesques wear on her body, maybe she’ll get that master’s degree that will help her segue into designing spaces.
For now, though, her space is under the spotlight on the stage.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.
Salt Creek Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” opens at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25 at Hinsdale Central Auditorium at 5500 Grant Street. It will be held at the same time Sunday, Nov. 26.
For more information, additional performance times and to buy tickets, visit. www.saltcreekballet.org.