There’s something regal about Jeanne Fernandez Bruno.
Her graceful posture and mannerisms hint at her ballet background. And in fact, among other dance achievements, the elegant 89-year-old played the coveted role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in an early local production of “The Nutcracker Suite.”
The performance took place on a Sunday in November 1957. Wearing a pale pink tutu, silky pointe slippers and a sparkling tiara, a lithe Bruno twirled across the stage of the New Orleans Municipal Auditorium in front of an enchanted audience.
“It was very exciting for me, as well as for all the other dancers,” said Bruno, a resident of the Lambeth House.
The New Orleans Philharmonic Symphony performed the captivating sounds of Tchaikovsky’s famous score. They used a special instrument known as a celesta, which produced a sound that Bruno defined as “delicate and sugary.”
It was “total rapture” and “joy in movement,” Bruno said. Each perfectly timed piece of the magnificent spectacle required discipline and congeniality with fellow performers.
“It’s theater, but we don’t speak,” she said. Their job: “To impart your emotions, your ability, and your technique to an audience.”
The New Orleans native grew up in a family that celebrated performing arts. Her maternal grandfather was a master violinist in the French Opera House orchestra and her father briefly taught ballroom dancing. Bruno’s younger brother, Royes Fernandez, was an internationally acclaimed dancer who performed with the American Ballet Theatre.
When Jeanne was about 9, her father came across a photograph of esteemed ballerina Lelia Haller in The Times-Picayune and said: “That’s the teacher that I want my daughter to study with.”
“Miss Haller” had studied ballet in Paris and was the first American to be appointed as the Premiere Danseuse of The Paris Opera Ballet.
When she moved back to New Orleans, she opened a dance studio in the French Quarter, later moving it into her home on Pine Street.
That’s where Bruno began honing her craft — in the attic of an Uptown home, without air conditioning.
“That was the only teacher that I knew and I was devoted to her,” said Bruno, who also danced solo performances with the New Orleans Opera House Association ballet and the Summer Pops.
She is still a board member of the Delta Festival Ballet, and she has been dancing in theater productions with Greg Bonin, the director of the Lambeth House theatre group, for three years.
Haller’s daughter, Bobbe Willard, was often present at the Pine Street rehearsals.
She remembers sitting on the steps of her mother’s studio and looking up into the room, as a young girl, awestruck by Bruno.
“I just loved to watch her. She had a marvelous style about her, and she smiled,” said Willard. “She loved to dance and you could tell by the way she danced.”
Willard also mentioned that Bruno had “pretty feet”: a pronounced arch, and the strength to smoothly carry athletic dancers across the stage while they pirouette and perform a flurry of fast, classical ballet steps.
“Jeanne had a lot to do with me wanting to dance,” said Willard, who eventually went on to dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. She now runs Lelia Haller Classic Ballet in Covington.
Today, numerous versions of “The Nutcracker” exist. In New Orleans alone, nearly 10 productions were scheduled to take place this holiday season — including performances by the New Orleans Ballet Theatre and the famous Moscow Ballet.
But thanks to televised broadcasts of “The Nutcracker,” and YouTube, almost anyone can watch this classic at their leisure.
This wasn’t possible in the 1950s. When a Nutcracker production took place in New Orleans, many were viewing it for the very first time.
These early productions, known as suites, showcased excerpts from the ballet, rather than the full production.
“Nobody did the whole ballet because nobody could afford to do it,” said Willard, noting the expense of the scenery and the costumes. She recalls attending a presentation of “The Nutcracker” with her mother, in the late 1940s, and dressing up for the thrilling occasion.
“I remember being so fascinated,” said Willard. “Little girls just love ‘The Nutcracker,’ because it’s a fairy tale. It’s magic. It encompasses you, like when you hear good music or read a good book. That’s what ‘Nutcracker’ does.”