When Rebecca Nugent was a child living at orphanages in Ethiopia, she was always hungry and surrounded by the violence of war and corruption. But one thing that always brought joy to her life was dancing. She never imagined she would one day be a professional ballerina portraying the role of Clara in New Ballet’s The San Jose Nutcracker.
Nugent, now 25, remembers often feeling sad and defeated during her nine years of living at orphanages – until her loving parents were finally able to adopt her and bring her home to Elk Grove, California.
Soon after coming to America, Nugent was enrolled in dance classes and eventually discovered she loved ballet. She attended a summer intensive ballet program at New Ballet where she caught the eye of artistic director Dalia Rawson who offered her a position with the company.
Nugent recently spoke with Bay Area Parent about her journey.
The San Jose Nutcracker performances are Dec. 18-22 at the California Theatre in San Jose. For more information, go to newballet.com/nutcracker.
Do you remember dancing a lot at the orphanages?
We used dancing as a way to celebrate when someone got adopted. So when someone’s family was coming to get them we would throw a party with music, almost as a goodbye. It was almost a ritual. So I’ve always had dancing in me.
… When you’re going to adopt kids, they send you videos of the kids. So my parents had videos of me dancing in the orphanage. When I got here, they let me know that in America there’s dance classes that you can take. So I did that. I started with tap, jazz and a little of everything. I didn’t fall in love with ballet until I was 16.
What were the circumstances of your adoption?
I came to America when I was 9 almost 10, but my parents saw my picture when I was about 2 years old. It took them eight years to get me because there was a lot of difficulty with my adoption.
I was kidnapped from one of the orphanages by the orphanage director and taken to Nairobi. So my parents had no idea where I was. This woman who kidnapped me would take the money and run. I was finally able to come back to Ethiopia, but I was bouncing back and forth between five orphanages. So my parents would find me and then they would lose me. They had to pay money to get me somewhere secure. They are very patient people. Eight years is a long time to wait for somebody.
My mom always tells me about when they realized they wanted to adopt me. She was always looking on the (adoption) website at pictures. … One day my dad was about to go to work, and he went to hug my mom and he saw my picture and they both looked at each other and said, “That’s our daughter,” and they hugged each other.
Do you remember much about your life at the orphanages?
Fortunately, and unfortunately, I do. It varied from orphanage to orphanage. I went hungry a lot. There wasn’t a lot of food, clothing or bedding or any kind of care. At one of the orphanages, I was in there when there was a war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, which I believe had just ended recently. I remember constantly hearing gunshots. I remember playing outside and suddenly there was a bunch of rocks flying by me. The fortunate part of that is I still have part of my culture. I remember some of the language. I remember the food, the dancing, the clothing.
How did your life change when you moved to United States?
It was a huge culture shock. Bless my parents’ hearts. I would not eat anything American at first, so they had to provide me with Ethiopian food for every meal until it became too expensive.
My parents homeschooled me because I didn’t speak English very well. … I wasn’t able to read that well. They were already experienced with homeschooling because they homeschooled my siblings. It worked out in my favor because I was able to do dance as much as I wanted. … I started ballet at North Coast Dance in Humboldt when I went to Humboldt State University.
How do you feel about playing Clara?
It’s an honor because I’m 25-years-old. I don’t think I would be able to do it anywhere else. Not only because of my age, but because of starting late as a dancer. The fact that Dalia gave me this opportunity is amazing. I think about it from the point of view of being an African American dancer and just thinking about all the little girls and boys watching and me being a role model.
It’s also very challenging because there’s a lot of acting. Sometimes I think dancers can get caught up in the technical side of dancing. But the role of Clara requires more than just the preciseness of the movements. It also requires a lot of acting. She gets sad. She gets happy. She gets confused.
When you lived at the orphanages, did you ever think you might be performing in The Nutcracker some day?
No. No. I thought a little bit about my future, but not in terms of dancing. I never thought this was here and possible. … Once I got to the last orphanage, I had contact with parents. My dad would call me early in the morning. …I did feel very sad and defeated when I was in the orphanages because everybody came into the orphanage and even those who came after me would leave, and I would still be there.
So if it weren’t for my dad or mom or sister calling me, I didn’t think it would be possible to be here at all. I was very defeated at that point.
My mom told me that they got me a bike. I said, “Can’t you just send it to me and I will ride it there?” She had to explain there’s a giant ocean between us and you can’t ride your bike over it.
My parents are social workers so that’s where their patience and love come from. They bought a dollhouse, and every year I didn’t come home they would add furniture to it or something like that. By the time I got here, it was a four-story dollhouse with all the knick- knacks you could ever imagine a doll house having. That’s the kind of parents they are.