Devotees of the Maryland Ballet may not recognize the company when the curtain comes up on "The Nutcracker" Thursday night. And with good reason -- the troupe they remember is not the one they'll be seeing.
Company officials, busy dreaming up a bigger and better production of this seasonal favorite, have imported more than a dozen ballet stars, appropriated a full orchestra, grand staging and the period ambience of the Lyric Opera House in hopes of sending audiences home believing in sugar plum fairies.
The five-year-old ballet company will present 10 performances of "The Nutcracker" that promise to outclass those it presented at Goucher College in previous years. But why would a financially strapped company, which nearly disbanded in the spring and has since laid off its own resident dancers, shoot for the stars in such a precarious economic climate?
In a word, cash, which the ballet hopes "The Nutcracker" will attract in sufficient quantities to help it rebuild. Executive director Daniel Kane says the troupe has become a presentation company for ballet spectacles, while working toward the day when it can present its own repertory again.
"It's a tremendous leap for us" on both a financial and artistic level, he says of "The Nutcracker," which is being co-produced by BACI Management -- the local firm that brought the Donetsk Ballet here from the Soviet Union last year.
In terms of the fuller staging, he says, the new arrangement gives company artistic director Phillip Carman a chance to "work with both hands rather than with one hand tied behind his back."
Mr. Carman notes that "overall it's just a little bigger" than their previous versions, then smilingly corrects himself: "It's a lot bigger."
For balletomanes, much of the appeal will be seeing such guest artists as Julie Kent, the Bethesda native who dances with American Ballet Theatre -- she also starred opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1987 movie, "Dancers" -- performing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Other renowned members of the cast include Leonid Koslov of the New York City Ballet and Michelle Lucci, a guest artist with the Maryland Ballet on previous occasions. Add a dozen members of the Dance Theatre of
Harlem, dancers from the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and the National Ballet of Canada, and 45 local children from the Maryland Ballet School and the cast totals more than 75.
For performers like Jeffrey Watson, this "Nutcracker" is a welcome opportunity to work, coming as it does for him during a six-week company layoff at the financially ailing Dance Theatre of Harlem. Mr. Watson, 27, is a Baltimore native who graduated from the Baltimore School for the Arts in 1983. He danced with the defunct Baltimore Ballet and also for a couple of years with a "Gotta Dance" Broadway-themed revue at King's Dominion before joining DTH in 1986.
"Who'd want to collect unemployment when they can dance?" (( Mr. Watson says of a chance to return to his hometown for alternating "Nutcracker" roles, including the Snow King and Mouse King. Of course, he's been back most years as a School for the Arts alumnus appearing in its annual "Nutcracker."
Besides serving as a showcase for a veritable menagerie of dance talent, the Maryland Ballet's "Nutcracker" will finally make use of the sets the company purchased from the Pennsylvania Ballet in 1989. The lack of fly space at Goucher prevented the larger stage curtains from being used there.
Although these curtains can easily be accommodated at the Lyric, the nutty saga of how they were inspected beforehand offers further proof of just how hard-pressed Baltimore is for a venue that dance can reliably call its own.
Because "A Chorus Line" has been parked at the Lyric, the ballet troupe did not have access to the opera house's stage to unfurl all the curtains and also use them as backdrops for a photography shoot.
The enterprising company was able to borrow the ample stage at the south end of the Baltimore Arena for a few hours, but the dancers, stagehands and photographers weren't the only ones using the Arena that day. The Baltimore Skipjacks were practicing on the chilly ice rink just yards away. The surreal juxtaposition of petite ballerinas and burly hockey players gliding so near each other was surely as bizarre as anything dreamed up by the little girl Clara in "The Nutcracker." (Then again, some of the ballerinas are portraying Snow Flakes, and dancer Jeffrey Watson did remark: "Ballet really is a sport.")
This very mixture of the pragmatic and the poetic is surely the attitude taken by many ballet companies undertaking their annual productions of "The Nutcracker." In budgetary terms, this beloved ballet is a veritable cash cow in a tutu.