UMD STEM Students Take the Stage in The Nutcracker

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Across the world, The Nutcracker ballet is a time-honored symbol of the holiday season. But, at the University of Maryland, this tradition is rooted both in dance and — to the surprise of many — the sciences.

When the curtain went up on the perennial favorite on Sunday, Dec. 15, at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, more than a dozen STEM students took the stage as part of Ballet Company M (BCM), a student-led organization founded in 2005.

BCM’s unofficial ties to STEM trace back to its earliest days when four University of Maryland students first formed the organization. Now, the company boasts a total of 17 active dancers, six of whom are students in the A. James Clark School of Engineering.

“When I first joined BCM in my freshman year, I was shocked to learn just how many company members were STEM students,” said Hillary Griffin, a junior majoring in civil engineering. “I thought I was going to meet them and find out they were all dance majors or liberal arts majors. But, we went around the room and introduced ourselves and, at the time, there were four or five seniors who were majoring in engineering. It was incredible — I immediately had mentors who I would have never otherwise met. Now that I’m an upperclassman in BCM, it feels so weird to be standing in my shoes since so many of our freshmen dancers are engineering majors as well. The legacy just keeps going and going.”

“Something that I immediately loved about BCM when I first joined my freshman year was that so many of my fellow dancers shared a passion for ballet but were also pursuing careers outside of dance,” said BCM’s executive director Cameron Smith, a senior in the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, where she is studying sustainable agriculture and environmental science and technology. “Going into college, I knew I wanted to pursue something in the sciences, but I couldn’t imagine not dancing, so Ballet Company M has allowed me to have the best of both worlds.”

Tackling the rigors of life in STEM — including hours in the lab, semester-long research projects, and competitive internships — can prove challenging for even the most driven students. To take on three or more two-hour ballet rehearsals each week — on top of other extracurricular commitments — requires a unique level of passion, diligence, and time management. Even more, because BCM is entirely student-organized — from tryouts, to rehearsals, to bookings, to costume and set design — each dancer is accountable for her own role with the company from day one.

“I’m sort of the perfectionist type — I have to have every single hour of my day planned out, and that helps me balance my schoolwork with my rehearsal schedule and other commitments,” said Natalie Wolfe, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering. “But, part of finding that balance is knowing when it’s best not to make a rehearsal or an event on campus or another club meeting. It’s about checking in with how I’m feeling and listening to my body.”

Emily Leo in The Nutcracker (2019)“Because we are entirely student-run, everyone in BCM is also a student going through a similar experience, so everyone understands when you need to take those breaks and realign your priorities,” added Emily Leo, a Fischell Department of Bioengineering sophomore who, like Wolfe, first considered a career in the sciences when she underwent physical therapy to treat a dislocated knee incurred from a dance injury.

This camaraderie translates well on stage. While some BCM ballerinas have long performed The Nutcracker year after year with outside dance studios, for others, the company presents a first chance to take the stage in the holiday classic. Even more, each member of BCM contributes a unique style — some dancers have studied classical ballet their entire lives, while others are more apt to infuse contemporary or jazz stylings into their adaptation of the nearly 130-year-old ballet.

“When I’ve done The Nutcracker before with other studios, we were costumed by the studio and choreographed by some of the teachers,” Wolfe said. “With BCM, I find that it’s really awesome that my friends created the pieces — including huge undertakings like the 20-minute party scene. A lot more work falls on the part of our dancers than you would see in other performances of The Nutcracker, and I think that’s just really cool.”

For Leo, this year’s performance of The Nutcracker represents an opportunity to check a dream role off her bucket list. Unlike many of her peers, she never performed in the holiday classic until her sophomore year of high school. This year, she will take the stage as the iconic role of Clara, the young girl who receives the toy nutcracker for Christmas.

“It’s definitely great to come to BCM and perform the role of Clara,” Leo said. “For so many, The Nutcracker marks the holiday season, and I love that it’s a tradition with BCM.”

But, the days leading up to BCM’s sold-out performance are long and strenuous.

For most in the performing arts, the week before a show open is known as “tech week” — or, perhaps more accurately, “hell week.” It’s the week in which performers run a show over and over from start to finish, typically in full costume and makeup. It also marks the last chance to iron out any wrinkles, ensuring that a performer’s every move becomes muscle memory, even under the stage lights.

But, BCM’s performance of The Nutcracker caps off the end of finals week at the University of Maryland. That means that on top of navigating their own exam schedules, the dancers have to squeeze most of their final tech runs into a single day — the day of the show.

Together, they clock in for the day by 8 a.m., and kick off their run-throughs with a “spacing” rehearsal, which allows the lead choreographers to make final blocking adjustments on the main stage. Afterwards, they regroup for a full dress rehearsal and break for about a half hour before show time.

“Every year, we have a tradition of hosting a little Secret Santa within our company before we start the day,” Griffin said. “We all swap names beforehand and start the morning by sitting onstage for our gift exchange. Normally, the presents involve coffee of some sort to get us through the day.”

Afterwards, the full company takes part in a sharing circle, where each dancer reminisces about what the group has accomplished together, as a team. It’s a powerful — and important — moment just before the excitement of the day hits full force. And, it can be particularly memorable for the company’s soon-to-be-graduates.

“I’m going to miss the performance opportunities and coming in each week to take a break from all my other responsibilities,” Smith said. “Most of all, I will miss the friendships that I have made over the past couple of years. Being able to connect with others who share the same love of ballet has been incredible, and the experiences I have had with Ballet Company M have been some of my favorites.”


Published December 13, 2019