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Nutcracker on Ice celebrates 25 years

It was 19 days before Christmas, and all through the rink many creatures were stirring – mice, of course, but also snowflakes, tea cakes and sugarplums dancing on ice.

Members of the Columbia Figure Skating Club gave it their all Sunday night at a dress rehearsal for the Nutcracker on Ice, an annual production that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this holiday season.

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For five shows on Dec. 12 and 13, the club will transform the Columbia Association Ice Rink in Oakland Mills into a winter wonderland as nearly 100 of its members perform the popular ballet, scored by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, on skates.

From burlesque and A John Waters Christmas to choirs and "The Nutcracker," check out these Baltimore-area holiday events.

Performers range from tiny beginners – toddlers in the learn-to-skate program – to high schoolers headed to regional competitions, including the South Atlantic Regional Qualifying competition and the Eastern Sectional Figure Skating Championships.

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The production is the brainchild of Pat Muth, founder of the Columbia Figure Skating Club, who decided to put on the group's first performance of the Nutcracker in 1991.

At the time, Muth's daughter was skating with the Next Ice Age, an on-ice dance company, and the group was invited to participate in renowned figure skater Dorothy Hamill's performance of the Nutcracker.

"I took one look at it and said, 'Hey, this is doable,'" Muth remembered. She cut the hour-and-a-half long music down to 40 minutes, figured out the choreography and, with the help of club members and parents, cobbled together a set and costumes. The club's first Nutcracker featured just 30 skaters.

In the beginning, the Nutcracker was a fundraiser for the club, which Muth, a skater since childhood, founded in 1975 after she moved to Oakland Mills with her husband, who worked for the Rouse Co, and their kids.

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"I came to the rink while the children were in school," she said. Eventually, she became the rink's assistant manager.

Over time, word spread about the figure skating club's Nutcracker, and audiences started to grow. The group initially put on the show over a period of two weekends, during its skating hours; now, they rent time from a hockey team to consolidate performances into just one weekend.

From left, Helen Shi, 5, of Ellicott City, Elena Bonier, 6, of Sykesville, Laila Barnes, 7, of North Laurel, all as Teacakes, and Tiffany Wang, 17, of Clarksville, as Drosselmeyer, perform during a dress rehearsal for Columbia Figure Skating Club's production of The Nutcracker on Ice.
From left, Helen Shi, 5, of Ellicott City, Elena Bonier, 6, of Sykesville, Laila Barnes, 7, of North Laurel, all as Teacakes, and Tiffany Wang, 17, of Clarksville, as Drosselmeyer, perform during a dress rehearsal for Columbia Figure Skating Club's production of The Nutcracker on Ice. (Steve Ruark / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

"Each year, the skating would get better, the costumes would get better," Muth said. "Now, it's full-fledged: the whole rink turns into a stage."

The show consistently sells out each year, she said.

This year's production has three different Claras, including Muth's granddaughter, Susie Muth. Casts alternate between performances.

"There's something new every year," club president Ji Lydon said of the production. Roles switch often among groups of varying experience to give skaters new dances to try.

Preparation starts in mid-October each year, and skaters attend rehearsals every Sunday for six weeks to prepare.

"It's amazing," said Joanna Brown, who is co-directing the show with Mia Choi. "These kids are fantastic; they work so hard."

The show is also supported by a host of parent volunteers working behind the scenes.

John Kuta, a backstage crew director, has helped build props and scenery for the last three Nutcracker performances. This year, he's finishing up a fireplace that gives the illusion of real flames, using backlit, silky fabric and a motor.

"There's an awful lot of preparation" that goes into getting ready for the performance, Kuta said. "We have a big group of volunteers that come together to get it done. It's almost like a lifestyle."

As volunteers hustled around setting up backdrops Sunday evening, Kuta paused to look around. "It will be completely transformed next weekend," he said. "It's a magical experience."

Robert Schindler, another backstage director, agreed.

"I enjoy the shows backstage," he said. "It's a different perspective on the show."

Muth credited parents with keeping the show going. In addition to the set pieces, most of the costumes are handmade. "If you didn't have 100 parents, you wouldn't be able to do it," she said.

In our area, nothing tops L'Etoile Ballet The Russian Ballet Academy of Maryland's spiffy, renovated studios on Red Branch Road in Columbia. Formerly The Ballet Royale Academy (which hosted fabulous dancing in its two decade history), Svetlana Kravtsova and her dancing husband, Vadim Pijicov are the new tenants.

Columbia Figure Skating Club members said they hoped the show would encourage a new generation of skaters to join in.

"It's very family-friendly and it's a great way for the families of younger kids to realize that ice skating as a sport exists in Howard County," said parent Andrea Wills. "We're not just a club to put on shows; the role of a club is to promote the sport in all its different forms."

"Once you've learned to skate, you can do it for life – I can still skate at my age," said Muth, who turns 76 in January. "And I've made a lot of friends along the way."

If you go

The Columbia Association Ice Rink is located at 5876 Thunder Hill Road, next to Columbia's Oakland Mills Village Center. Performances are scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 12 at 4:30, 6:15 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 4:30 and 6:15 p.m. Tickets are $12; online tickets are $13. Children under 2 years old are admitted free. For tickets and more information, go to columbiafsc.com.

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