Nutcracker prequel comes to Rockville

Ballet 1The Nutcracker prequel original ballet "Beoming Sugar Plum" was performed for the first time at Montgomery College by the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre and Academy March 18 through March 20.  PHOTO BY MARK POETKER

ROCKVILLE — The new “spin” didn’t just come from the ballerinas.

A local artistic director has put a new spin on Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

Audience members did not follow a girl named Clara though a dream sequence where her Christmas gift comes to life. Instead,  on March 18-20 they watched a fully awake plum-colored fairy princess take on a dark, dangerous forest during her quest to rescue dancing sweets from the king of the Bitter Land. 

Students and professionals from a local dance organization  performed a new ballet based on Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” complete with a score composed by a University of Maryland doctorate candidate and original choreography at Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College. Metropolitan Ballet Theatre holds 10 performances of “The Nutcracker ” every December and has done so since 1989. The spring ballet has changed from year to year.

Ballet 2Some of the younger cast members perform in the Nutcracker prequel. PHOTO BY MARK POETKER

The student dancers from the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre and Academy, an educational nonprofit, told the story of how the plum-colored fairy from  “The Nutcracker” became the Sugar Plum Fairy. Dancers played fairies, dancing sweets and inhabitants of Goblin Land. The story begins with a forbidden love in a land divided by war. Next comes the darkening of a kingdom and a kidnapping, a cry for help and a dangerous journey. A plum-colored fairy’s courage and heart are tested, and her courage and gift of self-sacrifice lead to a great realization resulting in the reunification of the kingdom. 

Paula Ross, executive director of Metropolitan Ballet Theatre and Academy, said the organization intends to make the ballet available for other companies to perform. Ross said she thought it would take awhile for someone to request permission to perform the ballet since the company and show are not well-known. 

Carol Starley said she decided to attend the ballet with her granddaughter Noa, 5, after she heard about the ballet from her friend who planned to attend with her own granddaughter.

“It was really wonderful,” said Starley. “They had a nice discussion afterward.”

Girl Scouts were personally invited to attend the ballet and were invited onstage to dance with the dancers following the performance. 

Riverly Twardy, 14, said she heard about the ballet from her Girl Scout troop, but that she was not there to earn a badge. A former ballet dancer herself, she said she enjoyed the quality of the performance as well as the incorporation of modern dance into parts of the ballet.

She was joined by her father, Charles Twardy, who said he was excited that new ballets are still being created. 

It was “familiar and different at the same time,” he said. 

Charles added his favorite part was a father’s realization in the second half, partly because he has two daughters. 

Choreographer Elizabeth Odelle Catlett first set out to create an original ballet in 2013. Catlett, artistic director and a choreographer for Metropolitan Ballet Theatre, created the storyline, put together the choreography of the 80-minute show, co-wrote a children’s book of the story and worked with a student composer she hired from the University of Maryland in College Park to write the score. 

“All of them were going towards one specific goal, so I think it all worked together really well; it’s just that it was obviously time-consuming,” said Catlett, who spent about two years from brainstorming the idea in 2014 to directing the performance that premiered Friday.

Alexandra T Bryant was working toward a doctorate in music composition at the University of Maryland in College Park when she was invited with a group of composers to write some sample music for the director. She was chosen from the group. Bryant, 30, said “Becoming Sugarplum” was the first ballet she composed, although she composed music for modern dance previously.

Catlett explained to Bryant what would happen in each scene and the style she imagined for it. Bryant then composed and played music she came up with for the scene on the piano for Catlett. She said 85 percent of the time, Catlett said not to change anything. 

Bryant, then a Takoma Park resident, said she did not feel that she had to change her style of composition in working for Catlett. 

“Liz asked me to write music that I was writing. There were a couple times it was a different (type of music),” said Bryant. “(I) got to the point where I had to write more of a waltz. I don’t write a lot of waltzes.”

“My idea of a waltz is not going to sound like your standard Strousse Waltz,” added Bryant.
Although she did not base her score on the music to which “The Nutcracker” is set, Bryant included a few small references to the other work. 

“We tried to reference ‘The Nutcracker’  because there is this storyline connection, but also musically bring in just  a little bit so that people can really (make) part of a connection … but I didn’t want to make it a main focus or main point in the matter,” said Bryant.

She said about two minutes of the 80-minute score reference the preceding work. The score contains a segment intended to sound a little like the “Arabian Dance” and also references Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” Bryant said.

The ballet presented a series of challenges for the Catlett as well as for the dancers, but they overcame the challenges through their perseverance. The company had 10 weeks to learn the choreography, become familiar with music they had never heard before and have the ballet set and ready to go in time for opening night.

Emily McKiernan, 17, (Aria the song fairy) said the choreography was hard to learn at first, but now for her the dance steps are “natural.” McKiernan, a senior at Quince Orchard High School, said she now knows all the steps from listening to the music over and over again. 

Ballet 3The plum-colored fairy who will become the Sugar Plum Fairy dances in a vision of the prince of the Land of Sweets. PHOTO BY MARK POETKER

McKiernan said the style of the dance steps were not as classical as the type of dancing she was used to, but she picked it up soon enough, adding that the dancers rehearsed three to four times a week. 

Sarah Danaceau, 17, (Sugar Plum Fairy) said she thought it was fun to learn all-new choreography. Danaceau, a senior at Northwest High School, said the choreography took more time than usual to learn because she could not learn it with help from a video or a DVD, which assisted her in previous productions.

Catlett said she was proud of her students for learning difficult choreography. Directing student dancers who knew her directing and teaching style ahead of time made the process simpler than it could have been, given the time constraints. 

Camille Sambor, also 17, (the fire fairy) called learning choreography for a new ballet “an amazing experience.” She agreed with Danaceau and said watching recordings of other performances while learning dances for a ballet would help them learn the concept of the dance they were learning, such as for the part of Odette for “Swan Lake,” another ballet composed by Tchaikovsky.  It would not be the exact same choreography they were learning; however, it would still help the dancers learn how the dance was supposed to look.

Annebeth Heller, 14, (lollipop, cotton candy cloud) said that at first not having a video to refer to for a general idea of the choreography to learn made it difficult to remember the positions and steps. Heller, a freshman at Holton Arms School, said reviewing the dance steps with other dancers helped her learn the choreography when videos of the ballet were not available.

If dancers can’t remember part of the dance in the early stages of learning, “You have to rely on each other,” said Heller.

Several of the dancers with the same part shared dance classes, so she and some of the other lollipops and cotton candy clouds, for example, reviewed the choreography before or after class. 

Sambor said part of learning choreography set to modern music was figuring out the cues in the music. 

“A lot of older classical ballets (have a) clear beat,” said Sambor. 

She added that it was not a fault of the composer that it took time to find a cue, but rather it was something that comes with dancing to a different style of music.

Catlett has a bachelor’s degree in dance pedagogy.


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