Nadia Letnaunchyn of the Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet in Towson discusses the importance of ballet and of the holiday classic The Nutcracker to her.
In Nadia Letnaunchyn's office at Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet, in Towson, snowflake and flower costumes are stacked and hung neatly, ready for some of the 140 dancers who will take part in the group's annual performance of "The Nutcracker" this weekend.
For the first time this year, eight students from Bermuda will join local dancers on stage for the holiday classic, requiring another layer of coordination for a planned Dec. 18 performance of the ballet at Towson University's Stephens Hall.
The Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet will also perform "The Nutcracker" at Stephens Hall Dec. 17 — a performance the Bermudian students will watch in preparation for the shared performance on the following day. Both performances are open to the public.
The Bermudian students will travel to the U.S. with their teacher, Emily Polasik, a former student of Letnaunchyn's who began teaching at Jacksons School of Performing Arts in Bermuda in September 2013, just after graduating from Goucher College's dance program. The island nation, which lies off the coast of the Carolinas, in 2010 had roughly 1/12th the population of Baltimore County, and is roughly 1/29th the size, according to census information from both countries.
The two instructors first met as student and teacher in the 2005-2006 school year. Polasik, who lived in Parkville, was a student of Letnaunchyn's at Parkville High School, where Letnaunchyn taught dance, as well as at the Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet. Letnaunchyn founded the youth ballet, for which she is artistic director, in 2007. Polasik also taught for Letnaunchyn at the youth ballet while she was studying dance at Goucher.
While "The Nutcracker" ballet is a popular holiday tradition in the United States, performances are more scarce in Bermuda, said Polasik, who returns home for the holidays each year and attends a local performance of the ballet.
Last year, she realized that her students would benefit from coming to Towson to perform the ballet, which she describes as an opportunity for the students to tell a story through movement.
She will bring with her eight students, ages 13 to 17, who were chosen based on their skill. The trip is being paid for through a $3,000 grant from the Bermuda Arts Council, Polasik said, adding that the girls also hosted a car wash and a donation-based yoga class to help pay for the trip.
Letnaunchyn has been recording rehearsals to send to Polasik, who learned the dances and then taught them to her students. Because Letnaunchyn is choreographing the piece, Polasik also has been recording the Bermudian rehearsals to send back to Towson, to get feedback.
Polasik came home the week of Dec. 5 to see family, and while in town, dropped by a rehearsal to watch the show in person. After she and her charges make their scheduled return Dec. 13, they will rehearse with the local dancers in the week leading up to the Dec. 18 performance.
"The Nutcracker" tells the story of a toy that comes to life, battles the evil Mouse King and becomes a prince, enchanting its human owner, Clara.
The ballet is something of a tradition for dancers, according to Elizabeth Ahearn, professor of dance at Goucher College. The work premiered a week before Christmas in 1892, commissioned by the Director of Moscow's Imperial Theatres, according to the website of the Moscow Ballet. It premiered in Western countries in the 1940s, according to the site.
"The Nutcracker" has likely endured as a holiday tradition because it includes a variety of roles for young dancers, allowing entire companies to perform in the same show, Ahearn said, adding that people also like the story.
"As an audience member it becomes kind of a family tradition as well," she said.
Letnaunchyn started the nonprofit Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet shortly after earning a master's degree in art administration from Goucher College, where she also earned a bachelor degree in dance, and was taught by Ahearn. The goal of the studio is to provide dance technique instruction, focused mainly on ballet.
The studio has expanded the past decade, Letnaunchyn said, citing as an example its first "The Nutcracker" performance, which included 40 participants, while this year's will include more than 140.
Revenue from the organization has also grown, according to data available through www.GuideStar.com, which compiles information from IRS-registered nonprofits. According to GuideStar, the Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet and Center for Dance Education Inc., the nonprofit's formal title, had a revenue of $50,735 in 2008, growing to $87,112 in 2013.
The studio puts on two performances a year, one in the spring and "The Nutcracker" during the holiday season. Performers don't need to take classes at Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet to be a part of those performances, though they are required to audition.
Ahearn said she believes Letnaunchyn has created a truly welcoming atmosphere for the dancers at her studio.
"I'm really excited to go travel there with my friends and to get to do what we love together, and to meet new people along the way," said Evelyn, who will play the role of an Arabian dancer Dec. 18.
For Letnaunchyn, who is 38, this year will mark her 30th season performing "The Nutcracker," she said.
Recently, sitting at her desk in Towson before a dance class, she spoke of having fond memories of past performances.
While growing up in New Jersey, Letnaunchyn danced with her father in the ballet during her childhood. He would play character roles, such as party-goers, which require less dancing, she said. During her senior year of high school, her father played a role in which he gave her flowers on stage as she played one of the main characters in the performance.
This year, Letnaunchyn will have a chance to dance with her 4-year-old daughter, Maggie, and her husband, Brian, in the Mid Atlantic's "Nutcracker," in less-complex character roles. The family lives in Parkville.
"Nutcracker in my life, and in the lives of my family members now, is not just about me dancing or seeing me dance, but how I got others to be able to enjoy the same things that I do," she said.
The Mid Atlantic Youth Ballet will perform "The Nutcracker" three times this weekend at Stephens Hall Theater — Dec. 17 at 7:30 p.m., and Dec. 18 at 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m.