“No matter how big the world is, this Island bubble is so small,” laughs Leah Buffone (née Campos) about a holiday tale to warm the heart — with Vineyard roots that now sprout on the mainland.
For generations upon generations, budding young ballet dancers have yearned to perform in the holiday classic “The Nutcracker.” Tchaikovsky’s ballet is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and is performed annually by hundreds of national, regional, and local companies. Since it teems with kids, many a young ballet dancer, including myself, was born after seeing their very first “Nutcracker.” But what does this cultural phenomenon have to do with our little community, where not a Sugarplum Fairy appears to be in sight this season?
It happens that two born-and-bred Island mothers, currently living in central Massachusetts, have daughters performing on the big stage at Worcester’s Hanover Theatre’s production. In the “It’s a small world” category, Buffone and Noelani Chase (née Scott) knew each other at the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, but other than occasionally seeing each other in passing, hadn’t reconnected until the auditions. “It was like, ‘Oh, you’re here too!’” recounts Buffone. “Then we both get the callbacks, and we see each other’s kids’ names on the list, and immediately Facebook message one another to say congratulations. It’s just fun to reconnect with a part of your roots.” Chase chimes in, “It’s little Island girls in the big city.”
While neither Chase nor Buffone tripped the light fantastic when young, both their 9-year-old daughters share a love of dance, starting at a young age. For Vicky, Buffone’s daughter, it was when she was 4, and wanted to be with her friends enrolled at the local studio. Buffone says, “The studio teacher there also teaches the clinic classes at the Hanover Theatre for the ‘Nutcracker.’ Over the past four or five years, the kids have always talked about wanting to try out for the annual ballet production, but we had to wait until they were 7.” COVID restrictions kept Vicky from trying out until this year, and she is now a mouse in the battle scene.
Chase’s daughter Makaela began her dance journey at the tender age of 2½, also wanting to join her friends who were taking a class. Last year, one of Makaela’s dance buddies was a reindeer, and they went to support her. Chase says, “Makaela jumped on the bandwagon, and after trying out this year, she also got into the production. It’s something she wanted to do, and set it as her goal.” Makaela plays a Troublemaker, part of the townspeople in the opening party scene. Her claim to fame is stealing a broom from the Mouse King and running around, causing a fuss.
Vicky and Makaela now know each other, since they are part of the same dance group and rehearse together. Buffone recounts telling Vicky how she and Chase knew each other as kids: “You two are kind of kindred spirits. You both have grandparents on the Vineyard.” And, in fact, Skip Campos and Cici Drouin of Oak Bluffs, as well as Hannah and Jon Scott of West Tisbury, will be making the trip to see their granddaughters.
The commitment is rigorous, and the girls have been preparing for months. The weekly rehearsals began in mid-September. They start with a half-hour ballet class as a warm-up, and then divide into clinics for their specific parts. The week before the performances, rehearsals are every single day, including Saturdays and Sundays — a commitment not just for the kids, but the parents as well.
Buffone relates that the best part of the experience so far is “seeing Vicky so committed to dance at such a young age. She’s already planning next year’s production, and the year after. I asked if she wanted to do it again, and Vicky said, ‘As long as they let me, I’ll keep dancing in it.’” Vicky is clearly dedicated, practicing in her room for hours during the week. “I don’t remember ever being so dedicated to something at 9!” says Buffone. “To see her love and passion grow at this young age, I know she will just love it for the rest of her life.”
For Chase, it’s about the family connection. “Some of my cousins and family members were ballerinas when I was growing up, and performed in the ‘Nutcracker’ in the Wang Theatre in Boston. So it’s awesome to see Makaela carrying on that legacy. I was not a dancer. I think I took one dance class, when I was younger on the Vineyard, but I didn’t stick with it. To see my daughter stick with it, and get out there onstage, is wonderful. Makaela is a very shy child, so to see her get up there to perform in front of everyone is just magical.”
“Now the second generation of these kids get to do their very first performances together,” Buffone says. “It’s just so much fun, getting to share it with someone who grew up in this tiny bubble. Then you come out here and say, ‘Look at what our kids can do.’ We never could have dreamed of this when we were back in high school. It’s been so fun to reconnect with someone else who comes from the same little Island.”