Just a few days before their live performances of "The Nutcracker," the intensity and concentration were evident on the faces of the teenage performers at the Carroll County Dance Center in Sykesville.
Each of the cast members at this rehearsal had previously performed in the legendary play, and there was a serious overtone to their latest production.
This weekend, their steady rehearsal schedule will give way to the center's full-scale presentation of Tchaikovsky's classic. After two years at the Gordon Center in Owings Mills, "The Nutcracker" will return to the local stage on Saturday, Dec. 15, at 4 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 16, 2 p.m. Both performances will be held at the Carroll Community College's Scott Theater, 1601 Washington Road, Westminster. Tickets are $20 per person, and can be purchased online (www.carrollcountydancecenter.com), by phone, at 410-795-3255, or at the studio, at 6933 Warfield Ave., Sykesville.
This is the 10th consecutive year that the Carroll County Dance Center has performed the familiar Christmas story about a young girl named Clara and her Nutcracker Prince.
Becky Eckrote's face still lights up when she talks about the play.
"It's a classic holiday story," said Eckrote, who grew up dancing at the Carroll County Dance Center and has served as its executive director and co-owner (with artistic director Megan Logee) since 2008.
"It takes a lot of organizing to make it run smoothly," she said. " We have choreographers that come in on the weekend to rehearse the dancers, and we also have our own lighting designer. We do the full production, not just the 'Nutcracker Suite.' At least 90 percent of the dancers are our students, but it's a community performance that is open to all dancers age 6 and up, not just our dancers."
While "The Nutcracker" will feature many of the young dancers from the Carroll County studio, the names and faces often change from year to year. This year, guest artists from professional ballet companies will be in Westminster to play the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.
"The greatest challenge is that every year I have to change something because of the casting," said Bat Udval, a dance center instructor, who is a former principal dancer with Moscow's Russian Ballet Theater, and is directing the play for the third consecutive year. "One year, you may have more kids than another, so I have to re-create it to make it work better."
Auditions are held to place dancers in their proper roles. According to Eckrote, the ballet training that students receive at the center prepares them for such all-encompassing productions as "The Nutcracker".
"Doing this full-length ballet shows what we can bring to the community, because of the quality of training that our students get here," she said.
Two of the center's previous students have gone on to successful dancing careers in New York, including Victoria Rufolo with the Joffrey Ballet and Natalie Boegel at the Alvin Ailey-Fordham University program. Several of the performers in this year's production are veterans of previous "Nutcracker" productions.
Faith Woodyard, a 15-year old sophomore at Seton Keough High, has been dancing since age 7 and would love to continue in theater after graduating from high school. She understands the amount of work that goes into making dance a career.
"Dance is more than just being at the studio," said Woodyard, a Reitsterstown resident, who will play the Snow Queen. "You have to work on the little things at home. I don't think that the performing part is that hard. You just have to bring what you learn in class onto the stage. And I like all the pressure of being on stage."
Kayla Johnson is also used to the pressure. This is the third production of "The Nutcracker" for Johnson, who will have three roles in this weekend's production and will be the soloist in the second-act segment of "Waltz of the Flowers." Johnson appreciates the fact that the dancers have plenty of lead time before the live performances.
"We start practicing in September," said the 16-year old junior at Pikesville High, who has been dancing at the Carroll Center since she was three years old. "My three parts are in different sections of the ballet, so there is a different story behind each one."
While there is a certain amount of pressure on all of the performers, the greatest responsibility is saved for those in the lead roles. But the chance to entertain an audience outweighs the significant amount of time that performance dancing requires from its participants.
"You have to be dedicated, because you miss a lot of the things that people our age are able to go to," said Alena Miller, a 15-year old sophomore at Century High, who is playing the main character of Clara for the second consecutive year. "You also have to go through pain. I've tried to dance through my injuries."
Roman Mykyta, who plays the Nutcracker Prince, started taking Ukranian folk dancing lessons when he was 5 years old, but was told that ballet would help his dance technique.
"The best part about playing the Prince is that you're in the climactic scene of the show, where there is a lot of emotion," said Mykyta, who lives in Crofton and travels nearly an hour to the Carroll County Dance Center for lessons and rehearsals.
"I'm always nervous on opening night," he said. "I'm thinking about the audience, and just wanting to do the best job for them. I'm also thinking about all the technique that's needed to do a good job."
The dance center employees get plenty of help from a group of at least 60 volunteers in putting on the show. Several of the students' parents are in the play's famous party scene. Fortunately, new sets don't have to be built from year to year.
"When we started this production 10 years ago, we purchased a majority of the sets from Springfield Ballet," said Eckrote, a Sykesville native and graduate of Liberty High. "We usually have one new piece that we need to come up with every year. Our new prop this year is a growing Christmas tree, which will be in the battle scene."
The props are an important part of any production, but it's the people who train the dancers that make the show a success.
"Carroll County Dance Center has the best teachers around, and I've really learned a lot here," said Danielle Milstead, a homeschooled 16-year-old, who has been dancing for 8 years and will play a Harlequin doll. "It has the right kind of technique training that I wanted."