Howard ballet cast thinks 'big league' Serious: Ellicott City Ballet Guild dancers are young, but they know dedication took predecessors to major companies.

November 26, 1998|By Heather Cabot | Heather Cabot,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Sitting cross-legged on the carpet in clusters of three and four, a dozen adolescent girls chat incessantly, pausing briefly to munch on handfuls of snacks. This could be a slumber party on any Saturday night. But the pink toeshoes coupled with the line of conversation reveal serious business.

"I just found out that I have 55 seconds to change from point shoes to character shoes and move from stage left to stage right," says 12-year-old Elena Consoli to her "Nutcracker" cast mates in the Ellicott City Ballet Guild.

The discussions of quick costume changes, new choreography and the complexities of mastering classical ballet underscore the somber tone at this rehearsal for the guild's annual production of the holiday classic.

Distinguished record

For the young ballerinas, the rigors of training and rehearsal might be compared to preparation for an Olympic event. For audiences taking in the performances Dec. 10-13 at Howard Community College, it will be "a bit like watching a Triple-A ballclub," guild director Caryl Maxwell, referring to baseball's top minor leagues. "You know someone's going to go on to the big leagues, and you try to figure out who to put your money on."

In its 18 years, the company has a record of sending dancers to the big leagues. Trained in classical ballet by Maxwell, young performers have gone on to at least 14 nationally known companies, including the American Ballet Theatre, Boston Ballet, Chicago City Ballet and St. Louis Ballet.

Wanting vs. doing

The determination to follow in those footsteps is evident the moment one asks these waifs who wants to make dancing a career. Without hesitation, 14-year-old Elizabeth Fleckenstein blurts out, "Are you asking who wants to be professional, or how many of us are going to be?"

Says Maxwell, a former professional ballerina who founded the guild in 1981 as a performance outlet for her ballet studio: "Our kids go from dancing with us to professional jobs where they are paid year-round. That's the track."

That is why Maxwell auditions only children older than age 10 and requires all of the dancers to sign contracts upon acceptance to an Ellicott City Ballet Guild production. Although only the soloists are paid for their performances, the agreements stipulate the rules of the rigid schedule.

'Eat, sleep, dance'

Maxwell estimates that in addition to technical ballet classes, which run an hour and a half, five days a week, cast members devote at least six hours a week to rehearsal and stagecraft training.

"There's a saying in the dance world," says production assistant Diane Nelson, mother of a cast member and a dancer herself. "Eat, sleep, dance. That's your life, basically, and everyone knows it."

Quality and commitment

That devotion has bred a stellar reputation for Maxwell's company around the region, according to Coleen West, executive director of Howard County Arts Council. "Caryl is very well thought of because of the quality of the productions, the longevity [of the company] and Caryl's commitment to the dance form," West says.

The company and school are on Main Street in an 1847 three-story stone building, once the site of the Railroad Hotel in the historic district. On the top floor, which is thought to have been the hotel ballroom, Maxwell runs through the combinations with the dancers. She punctuates the tempo as she taps her sneakers and sings with the famous score with her "bah-ba-duh-ba-bah and five, six, seven, eight." While she directs the girls to smile and express the emotion of Tchaikovsky's music, her eagle eyes focus on the technical aspects of their graceful movements.

Quoting the famed choreographer, Maxwell explains her teaching style: "[George] Balanchine said ballet is a moral question. It is either right or it's wrong, and I try to teach them the right way."

Late nights, early mornings

With less than three weeks until opening night, the dancers discuss how they plan to balance homework with late rehearsals. "You learn to organize your life," says Elizabeth Fleckenstein, who plans to get up at 5: 30 a.m. and take the bus to school in Towson, though she'll be rehearsing until 11 the night before.

While the commitment can be grueling, many dancers say they know it is essential to the production's success and their aspirations. Parents like Diane Nelson say the journey toward the dream has tremendous value.

"The reality is, not all of these girls will become professional dancers," she says. "But at least they can feel like they were part of a professional company."

'The Nutcracker' Ballet Royale Academy will present "The Nutcracker" at 7 p.m. tomorrow, 1 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday at the Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $7 at the door. Information: 410-997-8443.

Ellicott City Ballet Guild will present "The Nutcracker" at 7: 30 p.m. Dec. 10-13, with matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Dec. 12 and 13, at Smith Theatre, Howard Community College. Tickets are $8 to $16. Information: 410-465-3547.

Howard County Ballet will present "The Nutcracker" with the Howard County Ballet Orchestra at 3 p.m. and 7: 30 p.m. Dec. 12 at Jim Rouse Theatre for the Performing Arts. Tickets are $18 and $13 for students. Information: 410-465-8233.

Pub Date: 11/26/98

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