Philadelphia hasn’t often had in its midst a “baby ballerina,” the dance world’s term for a teenage phenom who quickly rises to large roles.
Local audiences can now behold one: Sydney Dolan, 17, currently dancing the role of the Dewdrop Fairy -- the No. 2 to Sugar Plum -- in some Nutcracker performances this month at the Academy of Music.
Dolan, who was born in Philadelphia but grew up in Cary, N.C., is in the corps de ballet of the Pennsylvania Ballet and won a 2018 Princess Grace Award, given to exceptionally talented emerging artists.
She spent some of her early years living on Kelly Drive in East Falls — a fact that delighted the board of trustees at the Princess Grace Awards ceremony in October. Grace Kelly famously grew up in East Falls, and Kelly Drive was named for her brother.
In addition to performing as Dewdrop in this year’s Nutcracker, Dolan is dancing the traditional corps roles of flowers and snow, and as a demi-soloist flower.
In the party scene, she sometimes plays Frau Stahlbaum, Marie and Fritz’s mother. "Wow, this is interesting. I’m a teen mom,” she said, laughing. Indeed, she’s closer in age to the children in the party scene than some of the other “parents.”
Dolan’s artistry and eloquence belie her age. Before joining the Pennsylvania Ballet, she was known on the ballet competition circuit, winning medals at the World Ballet Competition and Youth America Grand Prix.
She recalls Angel Corella’s surprise at how young she was when he offered her a position in 2016 with Pennsylvania Ballet II, the junior company.
Their discussion was going smoothly until they began talking logistics, Dolan said. “It got to like apartments and stuff, and Angel said, ‘Sydney, how old are you?’ I said I was 15.
"And the look on Angel’s face, I’ve never seen that look on his face to this day. He looked white.”
But it worked out. Her boyfriend Austin Eyler’s family lived in Philadelphia, so Dolan bunked with them temporarily before moving in with her aunt in South Philly.
This year, she got her own apartment. She plans to graduate from high school in the spring. Dolan’s still dating Eyler, who was hired for the junior company at the same time she was and who is now a member of the Pennsylvania Ballet corps de ballet, as well.
Dolan says she loves living on her own but is also still adjusting. For example, what does a person eat at 11 p.m. after a performance? “What do I do?" she said she often wonders. "Do I make dinner? Do I eat an apple? Do I just go to bed?”
Fortunately, the cooking part is something that comes naturally to her as the daughter of a chef. Her father, Shawn, owned the restaurant Verge in East Falls in the early 2000s. He’s now executive chef at University of North Carolina Hospitals.
“I really think I have the chef in my blood,” Dolan said. "I love to cook for myself. It’s very therapeutic after a long day, coming home and preparing things.”
Dolan danced in her first Nutcracker as a 7-year-old with a studio in Virginia, where she was a mouse, a snowflake, and the naughty little brother, Fritz — her first acting role. Shortly after, the family settled in North Carolina, where she continued ballet classes and school.
By seventh grade, though, her world became a little smaller and more focused. She dropped ballet classes for private study with a Cuban teacher, and she left her academic school for online classes.
Some dancers who shine in competitions have a hard time adjusting to company life. They go from being in the spotlight to walking on stage carrying a pail, as Dolan did this fall in Romeo & Juliet. Instead of a year of intense coaching on a one-minute variation, a lot of the work must be done quickly and on their own.
Dolan said that transition was a bit of a shock, but she quickly found her spot at the barre. Along with Dewdrop, which she also danced last year, she was the Lilac Fairy in Sleeping Beauty and had a highlighted role in the “Rubies” section of Balanchine’s Jewels.
When she needs more rehearsal time, she will work alone in a studio. If Eyler isn’t dancing, she will ask him to watch and provide advice.
Dolan’s application for the Princess Grace Award, for which the Pennsylvania Ballet nominated her, was something like a college application, including a video of her dancing, an essay, and a recommendation. (Pennsylvania Ballet’s last winner was principal dancer Jermel Johnson, in 2008.)
Dolan chose to write her essay about her biggest challenge: coming into a professional company at 15.
"I was very aware of the work ethic it required and all of the hard days and everything but never really looked into what a day would be like in a company and working with professionals. And it’s a whole different world. But it is wonderful.”