Elise and her family work to balance her dance and faith lives
By Katie Fiermonti, Photography by Jeff Dachowski
A lone figure glides onto the stage at the Boston Opera House. It’s a young girl, dressed in a powder blue Victorian party frock. The spotlight stays on her alone. She pauses in the silence as the audience holds its collective breath, waiting with her. She looks around, and she smiles. And with that first brilliant beam, a smile that radiates joy and imagination and childhood, the orchestra launches into the unmistakable first bars of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This is the Boston Ballet, directed by Mikko Nissinen, with all its dazzling Christmas colors and orchestral beauty. This is the Mouse King and Uncle Drosselmeyer. And this is Clara, played by 15-year-old Elise Beauchemin of Londonderry, N.H.
Elise, diminutive in her ballerina body, sports a luminous grin. The youngest of three children in the Beauchemin family, she likes to play with her cat Truffles. She works hard on her classwork with Queen of Heaven Academy, an online Catholic school. She can be found taking study breaks with bowls of ice cream or cereal at 11 p.m., and sleeping in until 10 a.m. on a weekend. She is, in short, a very typical teenager. But six days a week, and seven in the fall and winter, Elise can be found practicing with the Boston Ballet Company, in its highly competitive pre-professional program. This is the third consecutive year that she has auditioned and been chosen for the role of Clara in the company’s performance of The Nutcracker, a staple of the New England Christmas season.
What attracts her to the role? “It’s the art form itself,” Elise says. “It’s the joy. I love seeing people enjoying the show, both the dancers and the audience, and they’re very happy. It’s so much fun, the turns, the jumps. Ballet is probably one of the most complicated art forms. And you have to execute with good technique. It’s so difficult, and that’s what makes it great.”
“She’s always been athletic, always had drive and perseverance. And she’s a bit of a perfectionist,” Elise’s mother Carol adds with a soft smile.
“All dancers are,” rejoins her daughter.
Elise has a lot of support in her life, from her two older brothers to her parents, Carol and dad Alden. And she gathers enormous strength from her faith as a young Catholic. God is always in her heart and mind as she stretches into an arabesque or sinks into a plie. Elise is as devoted to balancing a life of faith as she is to balancing on the box of her pointe shoes.
“How important is God? Oh, a ten out of ten! Before every show I’ll say a little prayer; I’ll give up my struggles for God and Mary,” she says. “I’ll say something like, ‘God, help me to inspire the audience and give them a great show.’
“I always keep my faith first,” says Elise. She is currently preparing for her Confirmation at Concord’s Christ the King parish. “Dance always keeps me close to God, who helps me do things like land a triple pirouette. In ballet, you want to do the steps perfectly and land them, and sometimes all you can do is pray. You can offer your performance up to God.”
For Elise’s parents, incorporating faith into their hectic lives was absolute, and they find numerous ways to pause their busy schedules for prayer or spiritual sustenance. Dance life has incurred sacrifice for the Beauchemins, most prominently in their move to Londonderry from Concord (to be a closer driving distance to Boston) and in the hours they spend in the car on the highway back and forth to classes and rehearsals. “On a good day, it’s a forty-five minute drive,” says Carol. “But to me, it’s realizing that if God has given Elise gifts and talents and he’s opened the door into this dance life for her, then we need to walk through that door. God has been able to make this all happen. I have to trust that God has a plan.”
“The dance world is crazy,” she laughs. Carol is at every performance. Boston Ballet and Opera House rules forbid her from filming or photographing the shows, but she is there. If Carol isn’t volunteering in the gift shop, box office, or other capacities, she must pay for her tickets like any other audience member. She doesn’t complain, viewing it as necessary sacrifice for God’s plan. Her only conditions are that her family remains unshakeable in their faith, that it comes first and foremost.
“God has blessed us in so many ways. I incorporate faith into my kids’ education, into their lives. We homeschooled for many years. That faith piece is most important to me, to give them that foundation, so that when they’re out in the world they will make good choices and find their purpose.”
Even when they are in Boston, they find time to attend Mass on Holy Days. “It is possible to not compromise our faith. Church is nonnegotiable,” says Carol, maintaining that it’s very possible to stand strong in faith while helping children pursue activities and discovering talents. “Holy Cross Cathedral is right there by Boston Ballet. Sometimes another dancer comes with us for Stations of the Cross. So I feel good about that. On Mondays when Elise dances all day, I’m in a café working for eight hours. I found that there’s a beautiful church in the Prudential Building, so I’ve been able to walk over. And we pray the Rosary on our car ride. It helps keep us grounded and focused on God.”
By all reports, the balance struck by Elise between faith and dance is working. In her third and probably final year as Clara (girls usually outgrow the role and costume as they get older), she is relishing every downbeat of the music, every sore muscle and every time she twists her long brown hair up into her signature “super bun.” She is Clara for seventeen out of the Company’s forty-four Nutcracker performances, job-sharing the role with two other girls. When another Clara is ill, Elise fills in, sometimes doing multiple shows in one day. Her attitude is radiant and positive, even when things don’t always go to plan on stage.
“Once my shoe flew off. And one time I kicked over the wooden Nutcracker,” she recalls, laughing. “I chasséd around and my skirt sent wind onto it and knocked it over. The Drosselmeyer was very smart and improvised something. And now I hold my breath every time I do that scene.”
“I do too, when I’m watching,” adds her mother.
At the end of this year’s performance schedule, Elise will have heard The Nutcracker’s score more than 50 times, not including at practice and standing in for other dancers when they are unable to perform the role. One would imagine some boredom might kick in. “I’m not bored!” she insists. “It’s such a rush to hear that music. The orchestra is so beautiful. The tutus are gorgeous. The dancers are all so friendly. And with the part of Clara, you can make it different each time. You can use your artistry and use your expressions. You start the whole show with a smile, and that’s amazing.”
Elise has always been drawn to dance. At 8, on a whim, she auditioned for St. Paul’s School Ballet Company’s Nutcracker and got the part. She took more classes through Concord’s Eastern Ballet Institute until her teacher encouraged her to audition for Boston Ballet. “Boston Ballet has a nice repertoire,” says Elise. “It shows the whole ballet spectrum, and there’s a lot of classical, which I like. I myself like Balanchine’s works, including Stars and Stripes. I would love to dance in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.” She idolizes Boston Ballet Principal Ballerina Misa Kuranaga, who, at a diminutive 5’1”, is inspiring to Elise. In the next two years, she hopes to be invited to become a trainee at the ballet, the step before getting into Boston Ballet’s second company. Her mother hopes she can one day balance college with work at a ballet company.
Carol gets emotional talking about watching her daughter perform. At each show, she is able to see Elise fulfill her passion, a true gift. “When she’s on stage, and you see the smile and the joy in her eyes, you know it’s the real thing, that God is in the beauty of the dance. God is in the beautiful moments on the stage,” she says, tearfully. “You see the blessings. You see her persevering through struggle. God is in those moments.”
At the end of The Nutcracker, after the Sugar Plum Fairy has danced offstage and the Mouse King has been vanquished, the character of Clara wakes up wondering if all the pomp and pageantry has been real or a vivid Christmas dream. But Elise Beauchemin can be very sure of her dreams coming true, with every leap of faith she makes.