This holiday season, Rebecca Nugent performed two different roles in two different productions of “The Nutcracker” in two different cities.
The 25-year-old dancer portrayed Clara in New Ballet’s “The San Jose Nutcracker” in the Bay Area from Dec. 18-22. Prior to that, Nugent – a former resident of Arcata – returned to Humboldt County, where she was the Sugar Plum Fairy in North Coast Dance’s first weekend of “The Nutcracker” from December 10-12 at Arkley Center for the Performing Arts in Eureka. (Isabella Buckman, who attends Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, was the Sugar Plum Fairy for the production’s second weekend.)
Nugent said: “When I was asked if I would be interested in being a guest (with North Coast Dance) I said yes without hesitation because I wanted to give back to a community that has brought me to where I am. now.”
The road to the stage was long for Nugent, who was born 2 months early in the small town of Bishoftu in Ethiopia.
“Due to lack of hospital access, my birth mother died after giving birth to me,” Nugent said. “…My biological grandmother tried to take me to the hospital. I remember her telling me they were shocked (that) I was still alive. … I don’t know what she did, but I survived.
“Around the age of 2, my grandmother (became very ill and) had to abandon me at the nearest orphanage because she could no longer take care of me because she was already struggling. to take care of herself,” Nugent said. “From then on, I bounced from orphanage to orphanage. I was very hungry when I was a child.
More than 9,000 miles away, Timothy and Tami Nugent, social workers then living in Elk Grove, were looking to adopt a child. They first saw Nugent’s photo when she was a toddler decades ago.
“My parents wanted to adopt and after a lot of research one day they came across my picture and my parents told me how they both looked at the picture and said, ‘That’s our daughter.'”
Due to several circumstances – including problems at the orphanage, a war involving Ethiopia, and Ethiopian adoption rules and restrictions, it took the couple almost eight years to finalize the adoption.
“While my adoption was finalized, there was a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, so it was unsafe for people from another country to come by plane,” Nugent said. “I ended up being accompanied (to the United States by) the son of the director of the orphanage. We landed in San Francisco where my father was waiting for me.
The Nugents brought their new 9-year-old daughter home to the town of Elk Grove, near Sacramento, where she was initially homeschooled as she learned the English language and more about American culture .
Nugent also began dancing seriously once she arrived in the United States, although she enjoyed the creative movement and music even as a young child in Ethiopia.
“Before coming to the United States, as an orphanage, we used dance as a celebration for someone who was getting adopted,” she said. “The adults provided the food and drinks and the kids got together to have a going away party. The party always consisted of a group dance and a kind of storytelling while performing (in) a play that we were writing.
Nugent said: “When I first moved to America and my parents made me realize that there was a place especially for people who wanted to dance, I was blown away. I first started with hip-hop, tap and jazz. It wasn’t until my hip-hop teacher told me how much ballet would benefit my dancing and my posture that I took my very first ballet class.
Nugent says she took a few ballet lessons at the time, but “I didn’t have the same appreciation then and didn’t feel like it was as welcoming. Being a person of color in the world of ballet is tough, and while I didn’t quite understand that at the time, something was wrong. Now I realize that was not a battle I was ready for (at the time),” she said.
When Nugent was 15, her family moved to Humboldt County, and the teenager began attending Alder Grove Charter School in Eureka. A year later, Nugent decided to try ballet again through North Coast Dance, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting dance education and performance in Eureka.
She says she fell in love with ballet wholeheartedly at that time.
“Although I faced many challenges, the love I had for it was so strong that there was no way I was going to give up,” she said. “…As soon as I could, I took several classes a day and focused more on what I could learn rather than what I had lost. I always struggle with feeling “late” but all you can do is put in the work every day and let the results speak for themselves.
Nugent soon appeared in her first “Nutcracker” performance with North Coast Dance, taking on the role of an angel and performing in “Russian Dance.”
At the age of 19 or 20, she became an instructor and company dancer at North Coast Dance.
“She progressed very quickly – came to the studio early to work on her own and left late,” said Eliza Klinger, Managing Director of North Coast Dance. “She taught Ballet 1, Ballet Pointes 4, Adult Ballet and Hip-Hop. In 2020, when we needed to go entirely virtual, I reached out to Rebecca to teach our hip-hop classes over Zoom. His students love him. »
Nugent’s ballet world expanded again in 2019, when she moved to San Jose to join New Ballet as a company dancer. Nugent first danced in New Ballet’s Nutcracker production two years ago.
“The first year I was in the Snow and Flower Corps, I was also a ‘Waltzing Bougainvillea’, commonly known as the Spaniard. Finally, and probably the most fun and unique role I have I played is the tap dancing grandma in the party scene, which was a role created for me because I was one of the few women in the company who could tap dance” , she said.
Klinger says when Nugent moved to San Jose, everyone at North Coast Dance was thrilled with his new opportunity.
“They have really strong instructors, and we knew it would be a good move for Rebecca,” Klinger said. “We threw him a huge going away party and the board members came in to talk. As a studio, we have invested heavily in Rebecca as a dancer and as a person and have rallied around her as she entered the world of ballet. Tears flowed. »
After a year-long absence from live shows due to the COVID-19 health crisis, Nugent returned to the stage this month in “The Nutcracker” in both San Jose and Eureka. She was happy to return to Humboldt County to perform with North Coast Dance.
“This year has been a whirlwind of emotions,” Nugent said. “The pandemic has taken away an entire year of proper training and most importantly, performance opportunities for communities and dance companies around the world. … What I didn’t realize was the emotional and physical strength it would take to not only return to the stage to perform “The Nutcracker” after a year off stage, but to do so with an audience in live with a mask on and playing the role of Sugar Plum was a lot.
She added, “Because of the loving, family environment that North Coast Dance has built, this was ultimately the best way to kick off ‘The Nutcracker’ season.”
Klinger says North Coast Dance asked Nugent to come back to County to perform because “we had stayed in touch and knew how strong she was still gaining as a ballerina in San Jose. We also wanted our current dancers to have the gift of working with her again. Rebecca was a beloved member of our company and our school, and former students and company members were very happy to see her again, even if only for a short time.
“Our two guest artists, Rebecca and Isabella Buckman, lifted our spirits,” Klinger said. “It’s powerful to see someone you’ve shared a dance floor with making a living as a dancer around the world and/or pursuing a career in dance. It shows our students that it’s… achievable, and that being a professional dancer and being a kind and good person is also possible. It’s not just about being successful, it’s important to be a role model for your fellow dancers. It’s a very difficult career , physically and mentally. It’s easy to lose motivation and confidence. Seeing that someone you know gets up every day and puts on their pointe shoes – especially during this pandemic – helps strengthen your resolve.
Klinger says she cried watching Nugent dance the role of Sugar Plum Fairy on opening night.
“She was breathtaking,” Klinger said. “…Seeing Rebecca back on stage at the Arkley Center was a huge success for Rebecca and for North Coast Dance. The students she taught and the dancers she danced with in our company encouraged her and also expressed a great sense of joy to have her home and proud to see her perform again.