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Atlanta Ballet’s diversely talented Nadia Mara realizes Uruguayan girlhood dream

Nadia Mara took ballet classes starting at age 3 in Montevideo, Uruguay, devoured videos of great U.S. dance companies and dreamed big ballerina dreams of performing professionally for one of them someday.

Mara’s fanciful dream took some unexpected turns along the way. But now, at 28 and eight seasons into a thriving career at Atlanta Ballet, she’s getting to dance the part originated by one of her early heroes, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Julie Kent, in “Seven Sonatas.”

Choreographed by ABT’s Russian-born artist in residence Alexei Ratmansky, the dance is one of three in Atlanta Ballet’s diverse and challenging Modern Choreographic Voices program next weekend at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

“Julie Kent has been my idol since I was like 2 years old,” Mara said with a strong Spanish accent, speaking rapidly and ending seemingly every other sentence with an exclamation point. As a child, I was like, ‘Julie Kent! Julie Kent … !’ And all of the sudden, I’m doing her part. That to me is amazing!”

Adding to Mara’s excitement is that ABT ballet mistress Nancy Raffa, running rehearsals as the stager, frequently references Kent and the five other ABT dancers who premiered “Seven Sonatas” in 2009.

Unlike at American Ballet Theatre and most major U.S. companies, there is not a hierarchy of stars in Atlanta Ballet’s solar system. All 22 members of artistic director John McFall’s troupe are ranked equally as “company artists.”

Yet it speaks to the esteem in which Mara is held that she was cast in all three of the Modern Choreographic Voices pieces, including Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin’s “Secus” and Tara Lee’s world premiere “The Authors.”

Lee said she’s particularly attracted by Mara’s energy and focus.

“Nadia is always very much with you, present. She never has to catch up,” said Lee, the 18-year Atlanta Ballet dancer who is steadily building her choreographic resume. “And she has really good instincts and is very versatile.”

Mara said she “couldn’t be happier” about appearing in all three dances next weekend, though she admits rehearsals have been grueling for her and the other dancers (Christian Clark, Brandon Nguyen, Alessa Rogers, John Welker and Christine Winkler) who are in all the pieces.

“It’s mentally and physically exhausting, but we’re getting used to it,” she said. “It’s like (at the end of the day) all I want to do is go home and shower and sleep.”

Not a word of that is said in complaint by Mara, who considers rehearsals a collaborative process that is as important as performing for audiences. Both, she said, require her to “give 100 percent.” But if she’s done that for the choreographer or ballet mistress leading the rehearsal, then she finds the performances are pure pleasure.

“I step on the stage and I’m free because my body knows exactly what it’s doing,” Mara said. “Things come out pretty good if you just give yourself to the audience.”

The particular challenge of this edition of Modern Choreographic Voices is that the three dances are so different.

“Seven Sonatas” is “proper and classical” from the bottom down, she said, while the upper body movements are “very free.”

Quick or long, each of its pas de deux is extremely precise, Mara added, “so we’re always thinking about the details while we’re dancing.”

By contrast, “Secus,” a fill-the-stage extravaganza performed barefoot by 16 dancers, is “very animalistic and modern.” Like Naharin’s “Minus 16” last year, it’s wired with his distinct “gaga” vocabulary that punctuates liquid beauty with explosive bursts.

Lee merges classical and modern movement in “The Authors,” an examination of human relationships suggesting the idea that people “author” their own version of the truth. In keeping with that notion, the five dancers appear to be creating their parts in the unfolding story. Behind the scenes, they have, helping Lee give the dance final shape.

Mara said the choreographer has challenged them in rehearsals.

“She knows our bodies, so (it’s like), ‘You can go farther or you can jump higher!’ ”

Such exertion is very much what Mara was preparing for at the National School of Ballet in Uruguay, where she trained from ages 12 to 18, her aspirations increasingly focused on the U.S.

An unexpected opportunity came shortly before graduation when Gyula Pandi, visiting from the North Carolina School of the Arts, taught a class and told the 15 dancers he would offer a scholarship to the one who handled a challenge the best. Pandi picked Mara after she aced an unfamiliar variation from Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.”

“I was so excited,” recalled Mara, who raced outside to her father’s car.

“I said, ‘Dad, can I go to the States?’ He was like, ‘Sure. What do you mean? Like now?’ I had to explain everything so fast.”

Osvaldo Mara, an architect and painter, called Nadia’s mother, Leticia, to ask her blessing.

“My mom was like, ‘Of course. This is your dream. Do it!’”

After training daily with Pandi and taking classes at the Winston-Salem school, Mara landed a fellowship with North Carolina Dance Theatre. Soon thereafter, she accompanied a friend to take a class at Atlanta Ballet that was taught by McFall. The impressed artistic director immediately offered Mara a fellowship and, a year later, in 2006, a job.

Mara said she was welcomed warmly into a company that she now realizes may fit her enthusiastic personality better than ones where the competition is harsher and the talent more cliquish.

“Every single (Atlanta Ballet dancer), we’re very good friends,” she said. “This doesn’t happen in other companies, so I love it! And that’s why I stay here for so long now.”

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