The Ballerina Quilter
The Ballerina Quilter by Suzanne Labry
The origins of many holiday traditions are hard to trace, but that is not the case with the popularity in the United States of The Nutcracker, the ballet featuring Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score.
It became a tradition practically overnight when, on Christmas Eve in 1958, famed Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine’s production of the New York City Ballet Company performing The Nutcracker was televised live and in color throughout the U.S.
It was wildly popular, and ballet companies across the nation soon began staging their own productions during the holidays. More than half a century later, The Nutcracker has become an icon of Christmas nostalgia and a cherished part of many families’ holiday season activities.
Ballet Austin, the ballet company of Austin, Texas, staged its first full-length performance of The Nutcracker in 1960. Barbara Carson, who had founded Ballet Austin in 1956, danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy that year.
Carson, who began seriously studying ballet at the age of 10 in her native Cleveland, Ohio, had trained with Balanchine and had been a soloist with the New York City Ballet when it was associated with the Metropolitan Opera. She moved to Austin when her husband, a fifth-generation Texan, returned to his home state to work.
It was in Austin that Carson began quilting. She learned from her mother-in-law, an accomplished painter and world traveler, who collected fabrics from around the globe and used them to make quilts.
“I knew how to sew, because I often made dance costumes and helped with set designs,” recalled Carson. “But I had never quilted before until my mother-in-law taught me. I just fell in love with it.”
Carson brought the same sort of artistic sensibilities to her quilting that she had perfected in her dancing—grace, precision, and a seemingly innate ability to interpret fluid movement. And she brought those skills beautifully to bear in 1992, when Ballet Austin asked her to donate a quilt that could be used to raise funds for the scholarship that had been started in her honor to help disadvantaged children take ballet classes.
The scholarship was dear to Carson’s heart, as she herself had been the beneficiary of assistance when she was growing up. Carson was one of three children raised by a widowed mother in Depression-era Cleveland. Her mother worked as a nurse and made many sacrifices to ensure that her talented children received the best possible training (Carson’s brother and sister sang with the New York Metropolitan Opera company and her sister also performed on Broadway). The Barbara Carson Scholarship was intended to provide similar possibilities for other young aspiring dancers.
The quilt that Carson designed and quilted by hand for the fundraiser was inspired by a Ballet Austin program cover featuring a ballerina en pointe. Carson created the design’s central star by repeating the image of the ballerina’s body, and the quilt pulses with movement. It raised a considerable amount of money for the scholarship, and is now proudly owned by the mother of one of Carson’s former ballet students.
When Ballet Austin celebrated the 50th anniversary of its staging of The Nutcracker, Barbara Carson was in the audience. She received special recognition as the person responsible not only for founding the company, but also for bringing the holiday tradition of The Nutcracker to the city. It was a fitting tribute to the gracious and graceful dancer—and the quilter whose quilts dance in fabric.