Choreographer Michelle Lees has a pretty good track record.
“Almost all of my Sugar Plums have gone on to a professional career,” says Lees, the principal at Maryland Youth Ballet in Silver Spring.
This marks Lees’ 22nd year choreographing the company’s production of “The Nutcracker,” opening Dec. 14, at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College.
With countless productions of the beloved Christmas show playing just about everywhere this month, Lees says it’s the professionalism of her students at the Maryland Youth Ballet that helps this particular production stand out.
“Our production is entirely students that are going to have a career in professional dance,” says Lees.
“You really have to go to the Washington Ballet [to compare],” says Charlie Barnett, chairman of the board at Maryland Youth Ballet.
“The Nutcracker” is comprised of 90 dancers. According to Lees, every year students between the ages of 12 and 19 in their third year at the school are invited to be in “The Nutcracker.” But just because a student is eligible to dance doesn’t mean they automatically earn a spot. They must commit to seven consecutive weekends of intense rehearsals.
“A student can choose not to do it if they have vacation plans or family plans,” says Lees. “Every year you have a different group of dancers and end up re-choreographing depending on strengths and weaknesses.”
Although the dancers change from year to year, one thing has remained constant: the shortage of male dancers.
“You tend to lose boys when they turn 12 and they start to become self-conscious ... ,” says Barnett. “Even just a few years ago, we had to hire boys for the show.”
But this year, it’s a different story.
“This is the first year I have not had to bring in someone to play the Prince,” says Lees. “This year, every single principal [male] role is danced by one of our boys and I’m so proud.”
Barnett credits the recent retention of boy dancers with the welcoming environment teachers have created at Maryland Youth Ballet.
“I think it’s just this really warm, accepting attitude that exists at the Maryland Youth Ballet,” says Barnett. “One of the things that our male dance teachers have done is they take a fair amount of time making sure that everyone is really comfortable with [dancing] and how to be handle [being a male dancer] at school.”
In addition to their roles in “The Nutcracker,” the same group of students will be dancing “The Mini-Nut,” a 50-minute version of the play, running Saturday and Sunday at the Montgomery College Cultural Center in Silver Spring. This is the Maryland Youth Ballet’s third year doing “The Mini-Nut.”
“We wanted something that would appeal to younger children,” says Lees. “Younger children can’t really sit through a two hour production ... There’s no intermission, it’s just ‘bam, bam.’”
Lees worked alongside Barnett, a professional composer, to re-do the show’s music and include only the most popular songs.
Barnett says he expects both productions to do well among audiences this season and says it’s Lees’ “critical director’s eye” that creates drama and keep audiences engaged.
“[What] really delineates us from other companies is we take the drama as seriously as you possibly can,” says Barnett. “I watch how it engages kids who come because their mothers made them come ... And I watch them just get [drawn] in.”