Stage Mother

With 233 little dancers to corral, this `Nutcracker' mom keeps on her toes.

December 02, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

This is the first of an occasional series about people who do the behind-the-scenes work during the holidays.

The stage is set, the rehearsals over. Tonight, the world premiere of the Washington Ballet's new Nutcracker will open at the Hippodrome Theatre. Think new American, not old Europe: The Christmas party opens in a Georgetown mansion instead of a German family's parlor. And the Nutcracker looks surprisingly like George Washington.

Much of the ballet remains the same: a young girl's Christmas fantasy still comes to life, and there's still the joyful music by Tchaikovsky that makes this one of the best-loved ballets of all time, and a holiday tradition.

But whether the Washington Ballet stages this $2 million production with its new choreography, 1882 period costumes and sets from London, or keeps the same old ballgowns from the classic first staged 42 years ago by founder Mary Day - the Nutcracker would never get off the ground without a kid corraler.

That behind-the-scenes part is played this year by Donna Glover, 49, the mother of a 13-year--old dancer. She's tall and graceful, like a ballerina, but that's not why she got the job. A certain calm, six years of volunteering and the experience of managing kids in last spring's production of Coppelia at the Kennedy Center clinched it. She started in August.

Earlier this week, she set up command in a hallway in the basement of the Hippodrome, where dancers dressed, costumers dyed mushroom costumes and a prop crew stacked Christmas boxes topped with large bows. The office they gave her wasn't convenient, not with three rotating casts, red, green, and gold, showing up through the night for rehearsals.

It's an extra large cast of children this year - 200 from the Washington School of Ballet and 33 from Towson University's Children's Dance Division - about 75 children in each performance. Some of the new dancers are as young as 5 and as tiny as 3-foot-11, and in a new theater this week, most had no idea where to go.

"Where are the frontier girls?" one asked. Chorus Room 1, Glover said. Soldiers? With the Valley Forge bunnies. Party girls, mushrooms and clowns? "Here you go," she said, walking them to their room.

On the way, she passed a dressing room of teenagers, including her daughter, Sarah, 13. "Is it safe in here?" she said when she opened the door. "Ahh. The smell of hairspray." Seven teens marched past her on the way to the theater. "Who has a clock?" she called to the others. It's 2:22 p.m. and the first rehearsal is at 2:30 p.m.

"How do we have to wear our hair?" a dancer asks. Glover glanced at the girl's poufy bun. "Elaine, you've got to get your bun on top of your head, as flat as you possibly can."

Each in turn

Upstairs, after the Sugar Plum Fairy finished her dance on stage, it was time for the various casts to rehearse their scenes. Glover adjusted her eyes to the dim light and began to check off each dancer waiting in the audience, row by row, part by part, cast by cast. The big girls didn't want to sit by their cast color. "It's a challenge," she said.

A change in the rehearsal schedule threw everybody off. Last weekend, when parents began to panic over times and dates, she almost wished she had hired an entomologist. No, she reassured them, the call for butterflies did not mean the mushrooms should come, too.

With 29 performances between now and Dec. 26 - after Baltimore, the production moves to the Warner Theatre in Washington - scheduling has been her biggest challenge. It's like seating diners in a restaurant, Glover says, you have to be sure not to triple-book. She was surprised at how much time she's spent answering parents' questions and trying to resolve dancers' scheduling issues - one has exams this week, or a conflict with a clarinet lesson or a fever of 103. This dancer broke her thumb or shut it in a car door. Sisters wound up in different casts and one had to be moved. This week, when one of the Towson mice had a mandatory evening school event, she moved all the Towson mice to the daytime rehearsal.

A visual artist, Glover never had a desire to dance herself. But the Nutcracker has been part of her family tradition since her two children were young. When her daughter wanted dance lessons, Glover enrolled her in the Washington School of Ballet.

"The years that go into each one of those movements," she marveled as she watched a Sugar Plum Fairy rehearse. Glover has yet to see the whole production. Within minutes, she was up again to answer a question, this time about parking.

Small bites

"She takes the big problems and breaks them into bite-sized pieces," said Patty McAndrews, a parent who learned to paint faces and cut red felt soldier cheeks in classes Glover gave for new volunteers. But the reason parents admire Glover, she said, is "because she answers the same question, over and over and over again."

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