Every skater has a part to play in club's cool Christmas classic

Maryland Journal

November 21, 2005|By SANDY ALEXANDER | SANDY ALEXANDER,SUN REPORTER

Tiny girls dressed as pastel tea cakes scoot around the edges of the Columbia Ice Rink. Preteens in mouse costumes chase each other along the boards. Slim teenagers in puffs of tulle and sparkling hair combs work on being snowflakes.

It's rehearsal time for The Nutcracker on Ice - and it can look more like chaos than ballet when 115 young skaters take to the ice each Sunday to prepare for the holiday classic.

While the poised pair playing Clara and the Prince move smoothly through turns and dips, 12 "flowers" polish their routine, and the voice of artistic director Patricia Muth booms over the public address system: "Spread out, girls!"

When it comes together right, the young skaters manage to line up and execute a turn in unison while Tchaikovsky's familiar music fills the echoing rink. For a moment, spectators get a glimpse of the graceful showmanship that the troupe plans to show off at its performances Dec. 10 and 11.

At a time when it seems every local theater and dance school is offering its own Nutcracker, the Columbia Figure Skating Club prides itself on a shorter, faster - and colder - version of the tale, which involves a girl, a nutcracker doll that becomes a prince and a trip to a fantasy realm of dancing snowflakes and sweets.

The Columbia show typically packs in as many as 1,600 patrons over two days. For the skaters, it is a chance to tie on their skates and show off their skills without the pressure of competition.

"It never gets old," said Gabrielle Friedenberg, 13. She has been in the show eight times and shares the role of Clara this year. "Every show is a little different," she said. "It is all about having fun."

Muth, who has been teaching at the ice rink since it opened in 1971, first decided to have a winter skating show as a skating club fundraiser about 25 years ago. About 15 years ago, she went to see her daughter, a professional skater, perform in Dorothy Hamill's Nutcracker on Ice and said, "We can do that."

When the club could only afford an hour of ice time, it did two half-hour Nutcracker shows, Muth said. Now it does four performances of a 50-minute show.

The club's version of the story has been condensed, Muth said. And she works to keep it fresh, regularly redesigning costumes and adding new props.

Each year, more than a hundred skaters sign up, and roles are assigned to make sure they all have a chance to shine.

Younger skaters might be cast as tea cakes, mice, flowers or party guests. More skilled skaters get roles that involve solos, such as the Snow Queen, the Mouse Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

"If you are part of the club, [participation] is almost like a given," said Mariah Braxton, 13, of Woodstock, who this year shares the role of the Snow Queen. "I started as a mouse. You work your way up to what you want to do."

Frequently, the lead roles are filled by competitive skaters. This year, Gabrielle won the South Atlantic Regional competition for junior pairs skating. Travis Mager, 15, of Fulton - the Prince - won the competition in ice dancing.

But less experienced skaters also get the chance to take the spotlight.

"Miss Pat always wants to know what we can do," said Allison Timlen, 10, of Ellicott City. "She wants us to all look nice and have fun."

Allison said her solo as the Sugar Plum Fairy - a role she shares with another skater - will include a spiral, because "it's the thing I'm able to do all the time."

Sarah Yasenka, 11, feels confident about the lay-back that is the highlight of her turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Plus, she said, since it is a solo, "If you forget your part you can just make it up."

Even the crowds don't seem intimidating, Sarah said.

"It is not in front of all those judges who are going to judge me," she said. "It's just in front of all these people who want to enjoy a show."

But there would be no show without six Sunday rehearsals led by Muth, who shares directing duties with her daughter, Martha Muth, her granddaughter, Melissa Ivester, 17, (who will skate the role of Clara half the time) and Cheyenne Falat, 14, of Columbia, who will share the role of the Snow Queen.

The skaters start each practice session in a carpeted room, learning to match the moves to the music as they prance around the space imitating the smooth glide of skating. Later in the evening, the skaters take their turns on the ice to run through their parts and then cluster around Muth for comments.

The production is a family affair: Parents and siblings serve as drivers, tailors, makeup artists, scenery movers, prop experts, photographers, publicists and many other roles.

"I'm learning how to sew," said Sally Yasenka, Sarah's mother. Last year, she said she ripped apart the French doll costume she made her daughter four times to get it right.

This year, because Sarah shares the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Sally only has to glue 200 rhinestones to the costume the girls will wear.

"I really got off easy this year," she said.

And Yasenka said she enjoys seeing her daughter do the show after skating seven days a week to prepare for a competition.

"This is the fun part of ice skating," she said. "All the pressure is off."

sandy.alexander@baltsun.com

The Columbia Figure Skating Club will perform The Nutcracker on Ice at 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 10, and at 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Columbia Ice Rink, 5876 Thunder Hill Road. Information: 410-813-4026.

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