REVIEW: Maryland Youth Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’

29 years and a Dance Community

The Nutcracker
Maryland Youth Ballet
Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center
Montgomery College, Rockville, Maryland
December 14-23, 2018

By Nanda Srikantaiah

Depending on your affinity for the holiday season, hearing the music of The Nutcracker either evokes warm fuzzy holiday feelings, or makes you think of the slightly overplayed background music to a credit card commercial. This reviewer is in the former camp: The Nutcracker is peak holiday — right up there with fairy lights, sugar cookies, and eggnog. 

The original Nutcracker ballet took almost 60 years to reach holiday-tradition status after its premiere in St. Petersburg. In the D.C. metropolitan area, the Maryland Youth Ballet’s (MYB) Nutcracker quietly but firmly established itself as a holiday tradition for local families over the course of 29 years. Playing at Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center in Rockville, Maryland, through Sunday, and staged and choreographed by MYB’s outgoing Artistic Director Michelle Lees, who is set to retire from MYB this month, this Nutcracker is a delightful mix of tradition and community.

The classic tale of Clara and her nutcracker doll — which comes to life and takes her on a magical journey to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy — is a widely appealing fairy story with a Christmas backdrop. MYB’s Nutcracker hews closely to the well-known libretto, but adds thoroughly enjoyable, distinct touches.

MYB’s production does what The Nutcracker is best set up to do — showcase budding talent, get audience members in a festive mood around the holidays, and provide diverse and challenging roles for its young dancers. Given its place in the holiday hall of fame, it can be difficult to keep an often-performed show like The Nutcracker fresh. Luckily, the MYB has no trouble keeping its audience — many of whom are small children — fully engaged. The company adds dimension to the battle scene, with feisty Clara intervening at a critical moment, and the dead Mouse King dramatically waving good-bye to the audience before dying cartoonishly on stage, arms and legs held aloft like a dead beetle. It is a smart move — the Battle of the Mouse King is always the most popular with younger audiences, and seeing little dancers dressed as mice shimmy their way through a classical ballet never disappoints. 

MYB uses dancers of all ages in its production, from small children in the Christmas party in the first act to MYB alum Justin Metcalf-Burton in the role of the Sugar Plum Cavalier in the second. The result is truly a community affair, and gives the younger dancers a chance to learn the reins of a complex production. 

Young or old, the dancers hold their own. Ellie Sanders, the young dancer who played Clara on December 15 at the 5:00 p.m. show, is graceful, expressive, and surprisingly mature in her role. The dancers in Act Two, particularly Jordan Sisson’s Sugar Plum Fairy, the French Mirliton, and the Arabian Coffee and Chinese Tea dancers, showcase their technical skills in distinct ways. Dancers make full use of any solo time given to them, pushing themselves in whipping fouette turns and leaps across the stage. Special commendation should be given to The Snowflakes, who maintain their composure and coordination in a thicket of snow falling from the ceiling that would have been difficult to drive in, let alone dance. 

MYB’s Nutcracker is not, in the end, about just staging The Nutcracker. It is about bringing together a dance community — students at all levels, budding performers, and the cheerful and coordinated effort of parents, faculty, and friends. Nothing could be more appropriate for the holidays. 

Maryland Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker, Dec. 21, 7:00 p.m., Dec. 22 & 23, 1:00 p.m. & 5:00 p.m., Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, Montgomery College, 51 Mannakee St., Rockville. Tickets: $27-$38. http://www.marylandyouthballet.org/performances/nutcracker-tickets/

Nanda Srikantaiah trained in Indian classical dance (Kuchipudi) in Bethesda, Md., under Anuradha Nehru and Kalanidhi Dance. She now works as a lawyer in Washington, D.C., and enjoys watching Indian classical dance, classical ballet,tap, and contemporary dance. And yes, she watches The Nutcracker every year. 

Photos: top, Snow corps; bottom, Battle Between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, photos by Stephen Baranovics, courtesy Maryland Youth Ballet