Imagination, hope, desire Culture: "The Nutcracker" returns to City Springs Elementary School, as children get a lesson in life and art. A year in two Baltimore schools continues.

December 23, 1997|By Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson | Debbie M. Price and Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Hold your head up. Remember. One, two, three, turn, turn, turn. Not yet, NOT YET. OK, here we go.

It's show time at City Springs Elementary School.

Dance, Snowflakes! Dance!

The crystal white lights sparkle like a thousand stars and the school auditorium disappears. Dusty maroon curtains recede into a forest of candy canes. It is Christmas and Clara loves her Nutcracker. But alas, the evil Mouse King is making trouble for the Candy People of Sugar Plum Land.

Will the Nutcracker use his outside voice so people in the back row can hear? Will the toy soldiers march down the aisle in step, dadda-dum-dadda-dum?

Dance, Snowflakes! Dance!

For the moment, dreams come true and 10-year-olds in homemade tutus waltz to the music of Tchaikovsky's ballet. It isn't the Bolshoi, but it is a Christmas miracle of sorts.

With little more than imagination, hope and desire, teachers, parents and students have cobbled together a tour de force from construction paper, satin bows and glue. At City Springs Elementary -- where two years ago teachers could scarcely keep students in the classroom, let alone teach them to read -- the children are performing their version of "The Nutcracker."

"Our children need cultural experiences," Doris McQuaige Duncan, a special education teacher turned "Nutcracker" director, says simply. "Rap music is fine, but our children need to know about Tchaikovsky, too."

Reading lessons take center stage at the school, but even in the midst of the phonics drills teachers are looking for ways to infuse culture. Classical music is piped through the public address system during handwriting lessons. Students with good grades and attendance have been treated to a concert at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.

Children have stopped running in the halls in the two years since Principal Bernice Whelchel arrived, and reading scores, once at the absolute bottom of the state scale, are slowly inching upward.

As Christmas draws near, their efforts have been joined by almost a dozen well-wishers who have showered the school with gifts, including an anonymous donation of $2,000 and Dr. Seuss books for all first-graders.

Another comeback

The Nutcracker performance -- once a holiday perennial at the school -- marks another comeback.

For almost a month, lunch hours have been given over to practicing lines. Almost everyone in the building has been pressed into service.

Inspiration comes from the least thing. Everything is put to use.

The Snowflakes' skirts are satin aprons borrowed from a Girl Scout troop and covered with pink netting. King Winter's green felt cape is made with material left from summer school. The practice record was a wavery 1970 Disney LP played on a 336V Audiotronics until a tape recorder and decent tape could be found.

Women who took a few voice lessons or danced at the YWCA or spent afternoons 40 years ago listening to Chopin and Beethoven on a father's hi-fi are sharing with these children what they know. They are passing on their love of music.

It is back-breaking work, but nobody seems to mind, even when costumes must be made in the middle of the holiday rush.

"Just because the school bell rings at 3: 20 p.m., our day doesn't end," says Duncan. "As a teacher, you don't work for the pay. You work for the reward of children going on, doing well, coming back and saying, 'Ms. Duncan, remember when ' "

Holiday rush

There is so little time. Precisely, 35 minutes at lunch, not counting the time it takes to swallow a fish sandwich and canned corn -- "Try not to talk with food in your mouth" -- and then the last hour of the school day are all that they have for rehearsal.

Duncan barely stops talking.

To the Snowflakes, dancing on the auditorium stage for the first time: "Hold your head up like you think you're the cutest thing in the world."

To the Mouse King: "I see this as a wicked little part. You're supposed to be Big, BAD. Can you get mad? Get mad now! Your little sister has destroyed your room totally. You have to clean it up. You're mad! Show me!"

To the Nutcracker: "You are the sweetest boy in the world and I love you dearly, but you have to speak up! You know we can't rely on the microphones."

To the dancers, "Try to get on your toes." It's hard to point in work boots and tennis shoes, but they try.

And to the rest: Don't pull on the Christmas lights: they'll fall down. Don't swing on the stage curtains: they might fall down too. If someone calls your name while you're on stage, don't pay them any mind. And above all, whatever happens, keep going.

"The silly stuff is OVER," Duncan tells her cast at the last practice before the dress rehearsal. "When you go home tonight, I want you to sit down in front of the mirror and get all the giggling out of your system. All of it. When we come in tomorrow, I don't want any giggling."

Artist's temperament

Ten minutes until show time, there is a crisis. The chocolate chip cookie, one of the Candy People, wants to be a toy soldier.

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