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Student stars in Atlanta Ballet's 'Nutcracker'

Photo by Avan Clark

Photo by Avan Clark

AMERICUS -- James LaRussa spends a lot of time in his family's Toyota Camry Hybrid.

But the Americus resident, who attends Albany's Deerfield-Windsor School, isn't fazed by long drives.

In fact, the 15-year-old and his family are quite used to them. Weekly, the LaRussas drive to Atlanta so James can practice, rehearse and perform with the Atlanta Ballet.

For the eighth year, James is part of the Atlanta Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker." This year, he's playing Nephew and is partnering with female lead character Maria, a character often named Clara in other companies' productions.

This week, James and the rest of "The Nutcracker" cast will conclude the popular Christmas production with five performances, including two today.

"This year, they changed it so it's not as boring for me," said James, who dances only one level below professional. "It's the same music; it's just different steps. Instead of Clara being a younger dancer, like my age, they changed (her character) to a professional. So I'm dancing with this 24-year-old smaller, petite woman, and she's outstanding."

Even though the Atlanta Ballet will perform "The Nutcracker" 20 times this month in a 16-day span, James said the production's popularity hasn't dipped. He estimated about 2,000 people attend each performance.

"Everyone looks forward to being in 'The Nutcracker'," said James, who played "Pinocchio" in a previous Atlanta Ballet production. "It signifies that Christmas is coming, and people generally look forward to it and are excited about it because 'Nutcracker' is what most people go to the Atlanta Ballet (to see)."

James began dancing when he was 2 1/2 years old. After dancing with Dance Alive in Jacksonville, Fla., for three years, he was asked to audition with the Atlanta Ballet when he was 8 years old.

"I took boys class every Friday, and I was the youngest of the class," he said. "My teacher (was) Armando Luna, and he still teaches me. He is who I owe all my experience to. I took the boys class every Friday and after taking that boys class for one year, he somehow saw something in me and said, 'How about you try a couple of classes in the pre-pro level?' There's four levels. He kept me in there. I was in the lowest level, of course, and three years later, I was 9 when I got into pre-pro, and when I was 12 I got into the second level."

Unlike a lot of performers, James said he enjoys the training aspect of ballet.

"I like performing, but I like to train more," said the young dancer, who doesn't have to audition for Atlanta Ballet productions. "I've just been training in level four for a while and it's the hardest, but I love it because training is where you learn what you don't know."

Because he spends the bulk of his days in a car, he also knows how to maximize his time to keep his grades high.

"I hope to study at Georgia Tech since I've had straight A classes at high school," said James, who plans to study engineering. "I'm in AP U.S. (history) and all the other academics are honors."

Deerfield teacher DeeDee Willcox, who taught James in her public speaking class, said she has great respect for his dedication to dance and school.

"I think very few high schoolers have that drive or passion for anything the way he does," said Willcox. "He would fight for every (class) point; he was on top of it. I think if I put a grade in the computer wrong, he was there the next day telling me. He probably went to Atlanta and back and caught it. He's just dedicated to everything. The students just love him."

The Deerfield administration also thinks a great deal of the gifted young dancer.

"I am astonished at how well James balances all of his responsibilities," Deerfield Headmaster Dave Davies said. "He is a top-notch student and an exemplary school citizen. The fact that he manages to stay on top of a competitive college preparatory course load while spending so much time traveling and perfecting his art is a testament to his maturity and drive. We at Deerfield-Windsor School are extremely proud of James."

Nikki LaRussa said her son's perseverance impresses her the most.

"He's just a very driven person," she said. "He gives everything 115 percent or he doesn't try to do it. He understands how important his academics are. Nowadays, to be a marketable ballet dancer, you have to be smart because the director doesn't want to go over the same things over and over. They don't want to waste their time. If they've got someone who can pick it up really fast and can do a good job, then it's just worth their money."

To keep his grades high, James borrows a Deerfield laptop. His mother said school library assistant Debbie Lentz "makes sure it's charged up every Friday." James leaves Deerfield around 12:30 p.m. on Fridays and practices ballet from 4 p.m. to 8:45 p.m. The family generally stays in their nearby Sandy Springs condo over the weekend so James and his brother David can practice Saturdays and Sundays with the Atlanta Ballet. His dad, Leonard, lifts weights with his son at an Atlanta Gold's Gym to help James build his upper body strength.

"My attitude has always been 'as long as you maintain your grades we can continue to do this'," said Nikki LaRussa, who previously taught special education before ending her career to be free to ferry James to Atlanta Ballet commitments.

Although driving her sons and the family's 50-pound dog to and from Atlanta can get tiresome, LaRussa reminds herself that: "It's not forever, that's how I look at it."

Sharon Story, Atlanta Ballet's dean of students, is very appreciative of the efforts of James' parents to get him to Atlanta.

"James is an amazing young man who is very talented and has grown immensly in the past few years," Story said. "We all wish he could train more with us, but the commute is too long. His parents are very dedicated in bringing James to us when they can and we truly appreciate and honor their efforts on behalf of James and his dance education."

Recently, James displayed his dancing abilities to his Deerfield classmates and faculty. But he didn't showcase his ballet; he unveiled self-taught hip-hop moves. He said he learned some of his moves from a Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs cereal ad.

"I looked up more info about it on YouTube," he said. "It was more watching and trying to teach yourself by looking at them."

James' hip-hop dancing abilities earned him recognition at the first Serba dance convention he attended in Montgomery, Ala., in April. Convention guest dance instructor Joshua Allen, the fourth season winner of "So You Think You Can Dance," gave James an award for being his "favorite student" out of 600 dancers.

"When I told him I taught myself hip-hop, he made a weird face," said James of Allen's unbelief.

If he continues improving, James anticipates that the next step in his ballet career will be turning professional when he becomes 18 years old in May 2012.

"There are some dancers in the past that went to Georgia Tech and danced at the same time," he said of his future goal. "If I could, I would dance in the Atlanta Ballet professionally."