LAST YEAR, when Rebecca Leidig danced the part of Maria, sister to Clara -- the central figure in "The Nutcracker" -- she learned something important about herself. As she faced the rapt audience watching the Maryland Ballet version of a Christmastime ritual, Rebecca realized "Ballet was what I wanted."
This year, she is Clara in the same "Nutcracker" production, to be presented this weekend and next.
On a brilliant Saturday, Rebecca, dressed in a black leotard, pink knit warm-up pants and ballet slippers, waits for rehearsal to begin. With long, long legs, and a sapling-litheness, her junk-food free body seems custom made for ballet. She sits among a throng of little girls, giggling, gossiping, stretching their legs, ready to dance. But she appears a bit older, more mature and aloof than the younger dancers.
Like Clara, Rebecca, 13, is neither child, nor woman, but an enchanting combination in passage between the two life phases. Alone, she speaks succinctly and with poise of her goals. Later, sitting next to her mother Pat, she plays with the fur collar of her mother's coat and plants her hand on her mother's arm.
Rebecca is the youngest of six children, and the last daughter of three to study dance. She is the only daughter to take to it so passionately. She started dance classes at 6 at the Edna Lee Dance Studio in Linthicum. She studied tap and modern dance as well as ballet. Today, the eighth grader at Lindale Junior High School in Glen Burnie studies with the Maryland Ballet in Baltimore, devoting 15 to 18 hours a week to dance. It has not been a hardship to give up winter swimming and tennis for dance, she says.
"It's just natural, I don't mind it at all," Rebecca says of her hours in the studio. It is also critical for someone who plans one day "to be a ballerina with a professional company."
Rebecca plays the young Clara in the opening party scene, and again when she awakes from her dream of a journey to the Land of Sweets with the nutcracker turned gallant prince. (During the dream sequence, Jeanne Leporati plays the grown-up Clara, who is transformed into the Sugar Plum Fairy.)
As she dances the role of Clara, Rebecca keeps ballerina Gelsey Kirkland, once of the American Ballet Theatre, in mind. In her tape of the American Ballet's "Nutcracker," Kirkland is an ageless Clara, who dances throughout the entire ballet. "I watch that tape constantly. Everything about her is so perfect," Rebecca says of her heroine's performance.
But for now it's back to rehearsal. Artistic director Phillip Carman claps his hands, and with a remote control turns on Tchaikovsky's familiar music. The rehearsal, involving multiple generations of ballet students, has begun in the Maryland Ballet's studio on Morton Street in Baltimore. After minor pandemonium is quelled by ballet master Carman's direction, Rebecca emerges from among the corps de ballet. With a radiant and confident smile, she performs a charming solo.
The rehearsal is as chaotic as the "Nutcracker's" opening party scene -- partly because the Maryland Ballet has added an extra flock of little mice and Drosselmeyer helpers to the ballet. It is one of many personal touches Carman, who also dances the role of Uncle Drosselmeyer, has added to a production that has descended from scores of past "Nutcrackers."
In fact, the production itself -- the costumes and the set -- have been recycled from the Pennsylvania Ballet, with which Carman and his artistic associate Michelle Lucci, once danced. Before the rehearsal, he and Lucci examine the racks of exquisite but slightly faded costumes that were brand new in 1969 to find the ones they once wore. They reminisce about their colleagues, some now dead. The costumes, such as those made for the nutcracker prince, Sugar Plum Fairy, Mother Ginger, Snow Queen, Spanish, Arabian and Chinese dancers, the flowers and the old Drosselmeyer, bring back "a lot of wonderful memories," Lucci says.
In an art defined by tradition, costumes and a set that have been passed down give a ballet a certain soul that a shiny new production might not, Carman says. That soul is compounded when one costume is sacrificed for parts to be grafted on another costume, and the name of yet another dancer is sewn into the bodice.
"I'm not able to spend $300,000 on a production. [But] I would prefer to have it like this at this point in my life, anyway," Carman says. "It means something to me personally. . . . My company is new. This is only our fifth season. [Recycling the production] makes me feel as though the company has been around longer than it has. These things have been around. they give me a sense of my own tradition."
It is the same with Carman's choreography, a combination of all that he has absorbed from the numerous "Nutcrackers" he has danced in and directed before.
Carman has created his "Nutcracker" with fidgety little ones in mind. "The first movement moves right along. It is not a staid thing. It has activity and life," Carman says.