By Barbara Trainin Blank @traininblank
Getting to rehearse with a partner for “The Nutcracker” is a kind of luxury.
Justin Metcalf-Burton, who has danced the role of The Cavalier in Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday ballet many times, recalls being called a half-hour before a performance to fill in.
This year, in preparation for Maryland Youth Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” he met and rehearsed with his Sugar Plum Fairy – the Cavalier’s partner – Gabby Cramer.
A 2009 graduate of MYB, who has since obtained a Master of Fine Arts in performing, dances in a few local companies, and teaches at others – including Maryland Youth Ballet – first took part in his alma mater’s production of “The Nutcracker” at the age of nine, when he played both a ginger snap and a boy at the Christmas party.
“Since then I’ve danced in the ballet millions of times,” he said, “including as the Cavalier.”
Gabby Cramer, in contrast, is dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy for the first time.
The 17-year-old senior at Northwood High School, has been studying at Maryland Youth Ballet for more than five years.
“I’m really excited and extremely nervous,” she said about her debut role.
Cramer acknowledged it would be a “lot of work,” based on reports of friends who had performed the Sugar Plum Fairy in the past.
“It takes stamina,” she said. “I’m on stage for six minutes straight, just me and my partner, with no distractions.”
The challenge for Metcalf-Burton is different.
“When you’ve danced something many times, you have to make it seem fresh,” he said.
On the other hand, Metcalf-Burton said it helps the Sugar Plum Fairies with whom he partners precisely because he’s done it so many times, “and they only have to worry about themselves.”
Metcalf-Burton says he is probably more drawn to a dance work like Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” but he asserted that “‘The Nutcracker’ is really good for the kids; these are roles they can take ownership of and, they learn the process of doing a show.”
For her part, Cramer said she appreciates that “Justin is experienced and knows how to partner.”
She also found inspiration in Julie Kent, a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre for years who became artistic director of The Washington Ballet two years ago.
Kent received her training at Maryland Youth Ballet.
“I saw her on YouTube, and her beauty and port de bras were mind-blowing,” said Cramer, referring to dancers’ movement exercises of the arms (and in some schools, the upper body).
As she prepares for her last “Nutcracker” at Maryland Youth Ballet, Michelle Lees, longtime artistic director of the school who is retiring at the end of the calendar year, has many memories.
Arriving at MYB in 1976, Lees instituted the first full-length “Nutcracker” in 1990, and the “Mini-Nut,” in 2006. She has choreographed both.
There have been challenges: one year, a performance of “The Nutcracker” was canceled due to snow, so she decided to add another one to the end of the run.
“Unfortunately, half the cast had already made plans, and I had to replace 25 people,” Lees laughed.
Another year, she decided to include a rickshaw in the Chinese dance. A young man was supposed to bring it onstage with two female dancers on it.
“But the rickshaw tipped over, and he was left hanging,” said Lees. “We scratched the rickshaw.”
Olivier Munoz, who has been teaching at MYB since September, is taking over as artistic director.
“Mini-Nut” takes place Dec. 8 and 9, at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m., at the Cultural Arts Center, Montgomery College, 7995 Georgia Avenue, in Silver Spring. “The Nutcracker” has several performances, Dec. 14 through Dec. 23, at Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center, Montgomery College, 51 Mannakee Street, in Rockville. For more information, visit www.marylandyouthballet.org.