The Waltz of a Fearless Flower

Third-Grader With Cerebral Palsy Gives Her All in 'The Nutcracker'

Each year, the Joffrey Ballet chooses a child with disabilities to participate in its production of "The Nutcracker." For Mary Cassell, 8, who has cerebral palsy, joining this year's ballet is part of a family tradition of dance. Video by Alexandra Garcia/
By Katherine Shaver
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

When the Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" opens at the Kennedy Center on Thursday, 8-year-old Mary Cassell and 17 other local ballet students will become children attending an elaborate Victorian-era Christmas party.

Unlike the other dancers, Mary's leather slippers won't touch the floor. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy when she was 9 months old, Mary will sit in a small, old-fashioned wheelchair, wearing leg braces beneath her costume.

The Christmas story about a wooden doll that becomes a handsome prince will give a child still fighting to walk on her own a rare moment of recognition with one of the world's most prominent ballet companies, the result of new opportunities created by the disability rights movement in recent years.

Before seven matinee and evening audiences of about 2,300 people each, Mary will play with a toy drum and horn and sway side to side to Tchaikovsky's famous score. The 25-minute first scene ends with Mary, a Montgomery County third-grader, center stage under a spotlight, her arms thrust into the air as golden glitter floats down, signaling the magic around her.

Although some dance companies are exclusively for disabled performers, the Joffrey company has incorporated the "Nutcracker" wheelchair role in what may be one of the only parts for a disabled child in a mainstream professional production.

"Ballet is such a physical art," said Mary's mother, Susan Cassell, who studied dance as a child. "For her to be able to participate in 'The Nutcracker' is amazing. It's something she'll remember the rest of her life."

"She's excited, but she's nervous," she said of her fourth child. "I think she knows it's something special."

Mary, who lives in Darnestown and attends Jones Lane Elementary School in Gaithersburg, doesn't seem overly impressed with the notion that her performance might inspire others. She's just excited that her Brownie troop is coming to watch Friday night.

"It's fun," she said, "and I like the music."

Advocates for the disabled say Mary's part sends a strong message, particularly because the Christmas classic is intended for children.

"It's rare even for a child without a disability to be in 'The Nutcracker,' " said Andrew Imparato, president and chief executive of the American Association of People With Disabilities. "To have a child with a disability in a professional ballet company reminds people of disabled people's capacity to participate."

Mary uses a small walker or two three-legged canes to get around. She has undergone two surgeries to straighten her legs and years of physical therapy to stretch and strengthen her unnaturally tight muscles. Her mother said doctors aren't certain how her brain's motor cortex was damaged, but Mary wasn't breathing when she and her twin sister were born 10 weeks premature. Her parents said she seemed like any other baby until she was about 6 months old and could not sit up like her sister.

Mary was born into a ballet family. Her grandmother, Jennifer Cox, danced semiprofessionally in her native New Zealand, and her mother's sister, Julie Kent, is a well-known principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre in New York.

After Mary's diagnosis, Cox told Mary's physical therapist, Rebecca Leonard, that her granddaughter "needs the opportunity to dance, just like all the other girls in my family."

When Mary was 4, Cox started the Music and Motion class at Maryland Youth Ballet in downtown Silver Spring, where she was already teaching 5- to 8-year-olds. On Saturdays, Mary and 13 other disabled children work with Cox and volunteers -- usually older, able-bodied ballet students -- who hold them up or strap them into harnesses that hang from the ceiling. Using an intricate system of straps and tracks that run across the ceiling, Mary and the other students can glide and twirl in a six-foot radius, free of their walkers and crutches.

The Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet incorporated the wheelchair role in 1997, after a boy with cerebral palsy showed up at the Chicago "Nutcracker" auditions, an official said. The company requires that it continue to be played as a boy so it won't have to create two sets of costumes. Other girls in the performance dress as boys because there are so few young male dancers.

The part must go to a child who is physically disabled but capable of moving his or her arms.

Steve Cassell said his daughter is a bit of a ham, perhaps because of the amount of time she has spent as "the center of attention" with doctors and therapists. Still, he said, he has seen her self-confidence grow with each rehearsal.

"She's very comfortable with adults," said Cassell, an IBM executive. "Things like this are really good, because she's interacting a lot with kids her age."

Rhodie Jorgenson, who oversees the Joffrey's Washington-area child dancers, said Mary began rehearsals in early November, about a month after the other children, because she didn't have to learn the choreography. But Jorgenson said she wanted to make sure Mary joined the cast soon enough to experience the strong friendships that form over three months of rehearsals several times a week.

At a recent Sunday afternoon rehearsal at Maryland Youth Ballet, Mary's black leotard and pink slippers matched those of the other girls, while pink pants covered her leg braces. She tucked her well-worn, stuffed "Angel Bear" by her side in the oversize umbrella stroller used as a stand-in for the wheelchair.

As the other children twirled and jumped across the room, Mary looked on, smiling and pretending to play the drum and toy horn that she will have during the party, where one of the ballet's main characters, Clara, receives the nutcracker doll.

While cheerfully shouting "pay attention!" or "point your toes!" to the other dancers, Jorgenson focused on ways Mary could join in from a sitting position. As the other children jumped up and down with their hands in the air, Mary reached up and smiled excitedly. When the others swayed from side to side, Jorgensen instructed, "Mary, move your head, too!"

"I don't see her being different," Jorgenson said later. "She's a child."

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