Every winter holiday season, nearly all American ballet companies stage a production of “The Nutcracker,” the classic two-act ballet with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Most Americans have seen at least one performance, yet rarely tire of seeing professionals or young family members take on the familiar roles.
Metropolitan Ballet Theatre (MBT) will offer something completely different on March 18, 19 and 20 at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center at Montgomery College, Rockville. The Gaithersburg-based company will present the world premiere of “Becoming Sugar Plum,” an original fairytale ballet that tells the backstory of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
When MBT Artistic Director Elizabeth Odell Catlett pondered her desire “to create a completely original, brand-new, full-length ballet” with a “magical and ethereal” theme, the idea of a prequel to “The Nutcracker” came to mind. “All I know is when I have a creative idea, I immediately brainstorm the entire dance or ballet,” she said, noting that she had previously created “full-length ballets around well-known stories—(like) ‘Thumbelina’ and ‘Snow White,’ and plenty of short-length works.”
Catlett, who has been with MBT for six years, enlisted her friend and former MBT student Heather Katz to help create the story. The two brainstormed over coffee and lunches during 2014. “Heather was extremely helpful in creating the characters,” Catlett said. “Our ideas melded extremely well, and we created a complex and emotional storyline.”
Katz, a Kentlands resident whose two daughters also danced with MBT, was taken with Catlett’s “fantastic idea. I can’t figure out why it’s never been done before. It has been in the public domain (for more than 100 years),” she said, and pointed out the success of “Wicked,” the untold story of the witches from “The Wizard of Oz.”
The MBT Board of Directors, Katz said, fundraised to enable Catlett to hire composer Alexandra T. Bryant, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland’s School of Music, to create the original musical score. “I was instantly entranced by Alexandra (Lexi) Bryant’s music. I could connect to her works, and sing and choreograph to them in my head,” Catlett said. She was pleased to work with another woman. “We are strong and determined females in a world that is primarily masculine. The majority of classical ballets are composed and choreographed by men. We had the chance to change that.”
Catlett found the collaboration with Bryant “relatively easy. The hardest thing for us was balancing time, and not speaking the same language,” she said, alluding to her own ballet vocabulary and Bryant’s musical one. But, she explained, “We were very eager to work together, and laid back” in terms of ego, and thus managed to negotiate the challenges “There were obviously edits and changes that I requested be made to her compositions, but I wanted her music to reflect her,” Catlett said.
Catlett also came up with the idea of working with Katz to write a children’s storybook with the same title. “I wanted Heather and me to claim ownership of the story,” she said. Art teacher Ellen Cunningham, Catlett’s mother, helped out the authors by doing the illustrations. They used Amazon’s CreateSpace to publish the first edition. Katz hopes a second, more professional book will be produced in the future.
As far as the ballet, Catlett said, “it is still in the process of being made. The premiere on March 18 will be the first edition. … I look forward to seeing our years of work come to life.”
Katz said she imagines that other ballet companies around the country will want to perform this veritable “ballet in a box. It’s very sellable: new storyline, characters, score and choreography. I’m super excited to see it come alive.”
To learn more about the world premiere fairytale ballet “Becoming Sugar Plum,” call 301.762.1757 or visit www.mbtdance.org.