13 December 2008

Dream role for 'Nutcracker' star

Despite curved spine, Bryn Mawr student is a budding ballerina
By Jazzmen Tynes

At 13, Isabel Montague has played nearly every character in "The Nutcracker."

This year, she's the star in the Baltimore Ballet Company production Dec. 13-14 at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium.

The Bryn Mawr School eighth-grader "is a very dedicated student here and she's worked incredibly hard," said Cem Catbas, half of the husband-and-wife team that runs the company, where Isabel studies.

While dedication is a given for any serious dancer, Isabel's work ethic has been severely tested.

At age 10, she was diagnosed with scoliosis, a medical condition in which the spine curves from side to side.

Determined not to let that derail her dreams of being a professional dancer and one day owning her own dance studio, "I worked harder to overcome the challenge," she said.

"My spine is curved in two different directions, so I have to sleep in a back brace every night," she said. "It's harder for me to balance when I'm wearing my pointe shoes, so it makes me work harder constantly.

"When the doctors told me, I thought, 'OK, I have it. It's just another thing for me to work on and overcome,' she continued. "I was determined not to let it affect my dancing. If you don't have that kind of determination, not just in dance, but at home, in school and in life, it's almost impossible to achieve your goals."

After a full school day, Isabel, of Sparks in Baltimore County, practices for about three hours a night, eight hours on weekends.

Despite the rigorous practice, she said, the hard work is worth a sore back and toes and late nights spent finishing her homework assignments before heading off to bed.

"You have to make sacrifices," she said. "I've performed in this play for so many years, it's an annual tradition for me.

"It's always been a part of my life and I can't imagine a year without it."

In the past nine years, Isabel has played numerous characters in Baltimore Ballet productions of "The Nutcracker," including an angel, a mouse, a gingerbread man and a doll.

"It was almost natural for her to play Clara next," Catbas said. "She's played so many parts already and she was our Clara understudy last year.

"It was almost expected that she'd get the part this year."

The performances sell out every year, but the thought of a packed house doesn't frighten Isabel.

"I've been at the studio so many times and I've seen all the dances performed before, so I have an idea of what it's supposed to be like," she said. "I'm a little nervous about doing some of the lifts, but overall I'm mostly excited."

Catbas said he's watched Isabel grow as a dancer in her years with the Baltimore Ballet.

"Recently, she's been helping teach the younger children," Catbas said. "She shows incredible control and talent working with the young dancers. I was impressed with her maturity and how well she handles them."

For 'Nutcracker' ticket information, call 410-337-6333.

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