On Stage: A Nutcracker Tale (With a Happy Ending)

Photo by J. Verno

On June 24, 2010, Aliyah Busselberg’s life-long dream of dancing the leading role of “Clara” in The Nutcracker looked as though it had come to an end.  The ten year-old Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company dancer was playing soccer when she and two friends collided, crashing to the ground in a tangle of arms and legs.  Watching nearby, her parents quickly realized that something was wrong when she didn’t get up with the others. Her foot and ankle angled sharply away from the rest of the leg.  Referencing the Harry Potter films in classic 10 year-old fashion, Aliyah recalls that “It looked like Harry Potter’s wrist after he lost all of the bones in his arm”.

Fractures through the lower leg growth plate were confirmed in the emergency room and Aliyah was told that she would spend the next several months in a cast extending from her toes up to her thigh.  The time for recovery was uncertain, but could be as long as four months.  Upon hearing the news, Aliyah pursed her lips the way she often does when struggling to contain her emotions and her eyes welled up.  “I guess there’s no more ballet, I’m not going to [American Ballet Theatre], and I might not even be in Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company’s The Nutcracker . . .”

Aliyah’s summer plans unraveled.  She was forced to withdraw from training at prestigious ballet summer intensive programs, including two weeks in New York City at American Ballet Theatre and three weeks with Pittsburgh Youth Ballet Company (PYBC).  Summer training with her PA West Classic Division soccer team was also naturally out of the question.

No one could tell for certain how much function Aliyah would recover by the time of The Nutcracker performances, but the question was clearly in the forefront of her mind from the minute she realized the severity of her injury.   Last year in the summer she had been dancing in New York City Ballet’s production of Coppélia in Saratoga Springs, New York. This year, she faced the prospect of interminable hours on the living room couch.

On September 9, 2010, Aliyah called her father from the doctor’s office.  “I have some bad news about my cast”, she said glumly.  This was followed with an ecstatic shout: “It’s in my hand!”.

The boot finally came off nearly a month later.  It had been 15 weeks since Aliyah had used her left leg without some kind of support.  Her left thigh had atrophied, and her left calf muscle was virtually gone. She limped so dramatically that it was hard to imagine her doing any significant walking, let alone dancing.  That didn’t stop her from going to ballet that very night.  Or the next.  Or the next.  She started taking nine ballet classes a week.

Over the ensuing weeks Aliyah would spend two to four hours nearly every day rehabilitating her leg at the barre.  In those initial days without the boot, dancing any role at all in The Nutcracker—let alone her dream role of Clara, the leading character in the story, seemed like a long shot to just about everyone.  Even Aliyah, despite having danced in that role for a school performance the previous year, questioned whether she could be ready for the part.  Frustrated with her apparent lack of progress, one night she petitioned PYBC Artistic Director Jean Gedeon: “If I can’t dance in The Nutcracker, can I at least be Fritz [Clara’s little brother who breaks the doll]?”

Contrary to her own expectations, Aliyah was named for the leading role of Clara just two weeks after she had resumed dancing. “The teachers and I knew what a really good actress she was, so we wanted her for the part.  Before her injury, she had already proven herself to be an extremely hard worker, taking many extra ballet classes every week, so we were confident that she would be back in no time,” Gedeon recounts.  “I really believed in her talent and the proverbial four D’s to become a dancer:  Desire, Determination, Dedication and Discipline were always present” Gedeon said.

As time passed and the extent of Aliyah’s work ethic became clear, even Gedeon admits she still had one small doubt: “The thing that disturbed me the most was that in class she seemed to be making fine progress pointing her toes and doing exercises at the barre and center better than expected because she was concentrating so hard, but when it came time to walking naturally outside the studio she walked with both feet flat like she was in two boots…. that gave me a little bit of pause.  Aliyah would come up to me and ask me, ‘What can I do to get better?’  “Maybe you should try to walk normally and learn to run naturally.”

And walk more she did.  Frequently, on her basement treadmill, after three hours of ballet class was over.  Aliyah recalls her experience saying “I was so tired, I thought I would fall asleep on the treadmill and hurt myself.  I didn’t want to do it, but I knew it was the only way to get back.”  As The Nutcracker performance loomed closer, Aliyah’s progress accelerated: she transitioned from barre exercises to working on pirouettes and jumps and leaps in the center.  One of the biggest milestones in Aliyah’s mind was eventually being approved for pointe work.  “My first day back at ballet, I felt like I couldn’t do anything, but I told myself, this is just the start.  When I finally passed my pointe test I felt excited, like I could do anything that I put my mind to.”

With little time remaining before her performance as Clara, Aliyah still feels like she is not dancing at 100%, but she remains firm in her resolve: “When this is all over, I think that my left leg will be stronger than my right.  It was always the weaker leg before [the injury], and now it’s got a lot of catching up to do”.

What has Aliyah learned from the ordeal? “To appreciate what you have.  You can dance through blisters and growing pains, but physically it’s very hard to dance with no muscle in your leg.  Almost impossible.” Almost.  Recent rehearsals indicate that Aliyah has continued to make progress, conquering her fouettes turns on her injured foot.  But beyond mastering the technical aspects of the performance, it just might be that Aliyah’s new-found insights about loss will thread their way into her exceptional portrayal of a little girl with a broken toy nutcracker on Christmas Day.

Aliyah will perform her dream role as Clara on Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Upper St. Clair Theater. But she will perform in all Pittsburgh Youth Ballet performances (see Listings). Thanks to Jean Gedeon for sending this and to Amy White, who wrote Aliyah’s story. As a reminder for those of you who miss Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Balanchine “Nutcracker,” PYB has received permission to do the unparalleled Balanchine version of “Snowflakes.”


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