With sugar on top

It’s Friday-night rehearsal of act one, and a myriad of details, on and off the floorboards, still need to be ironed out. The Dancing Maids, in their warmup leggings and workout leotards — imaginary feather dusters fluttering from their long, graceful arms — are slightly out of step.

“Don’t guess!” cautions Ann Dunn, the Asheville Civic Ballet’s director and the choreographer of The Nutcracker. “Feel as one.

And suddenly, all the pink satin toe-shoes move in perfect harmony.

“It’s the details in any production that show how professional it is,” Dunn reminds the huge gathering of dancers and spectators crammed onto the rehearsal floor. (The Nutcracker boasts a cast of about 50 dancers — most of whom play more than one role.)

And speaking of details: “Dancers, remember — pink tights with no seams. No jewelry. Hair pulled back close to your head in classic ballerina style.” A tiny Snowflake, sporting a high-fashion blunt cut, pipes up: “What do I do about my bangs?”

Dunn’s probably been asked this question a hundred times in the 26 years she’s been choreographing the local Nutcracker — yet she answers patiently.

“Lots of hairspray, honey. And light-colored bobby pins.”

The Snowflake skips off happily, the major crisis of her first eight years of life resolved. How does Dunn handle it all with such equanimity, especially with so many of the aforementioned details still swirling in limbo? (Work on the seven new Butterfly tutus hasn’t even begun yet!)

“I’ve been pregnant so many times,” laughs this mother of five, “that I have learned all things come to an end!”

Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet first graced the stage more than a century ago, and young Clara’s dream adventure has been enchanting audiences ever since. This year’s production at Diana Wortham Theatre promises even more magic, with all the traditional fare intact plus lots of new treats. For the uninitiated, The Nutcracker proffers a feast of traditional ballet — sweetened, in various productions, with modern dance, ballroom moves, jazz, tap and acrobatics. Asheville’s Nutcracker even adds a burst of Celtic stepdancing, courtesy of Irish performer Joe Mohar.

Clara, the dream role of every ballerina, will be danced by budding star Leigh Cowart, 15.

Its status as a Christmas-only staple renders The Nutcracker’s creative energy as ephemeral as the dream story on which the dance is based. That’s why everyone at the rehearsal is so feverishly excited — they’re on the brink of the countdown.

The unique joy of dancing is that the body itself — every fiber of every muscle, from the tilt of an outstretched fingertip to the perfect point of a toe — is used as an instrument. Although the gasps are saved for the moves of the professional principal dancers, the rambunctious energy of the 14 tiny Snowflakes and eight Icicles is what elicits the warmest smiles.

“A wonderful thing about Nutcracker,” posits Susan Thorsland, the statuesque principal dancer whose solo opens the ballet, “is the experience it offers to both adults and children. All the children get to rehearse side by side with the more experienced dancers. You rarely get such an experience in any other production.”

Reprising his principal-dancer role as The Cavalier for the fourth time is Dion Wilson, an athletic powerhouse from the Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Nutcracker is so much fun!” he exlaims with a laugh. Joining Wilson is Melody Staples, in what’s actually her second Asheville performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy (she first danced it years ago, as a high-school senior). Like an impressive number of other Fletcher School of Dance graduates, Staples moved to New York and went professional. But she comes home to dance whenever she can.

Another returnee is Kristen Jacobs, for whom Dunn created the role of the lead Butterfly. Elizabeth Nelson, at 16, is a veteran Nutcracker performer; she’s rehearsing a sweet number with Stephen Gross, a first-time Snow Prince.

Another pas de deux will be executed by a brother/sister duo, Anne-Marie and Joe Coddington, who dance the Waltz of the Flowers. What’s it like for siblings to dance a romantic number?

“Oh, it’s working out very well,” Dunn insists (this despite the fact that Anne-Marie broke her foot two months ago). The Nutcracker, in fact, is a family affair for many — also dancing are brother and sister Sarah and Daniel McGinnis; their mother, Star McGinnis, is the company’s costume designer.

“Star makes the 300-plus costumes, labels them, organizes, irons, puts on the doodads, sets up the costume shop backstage and is on hand to repair the costumes during performance, which happens all the time,” the choreographer marvels (this is obviously a case of superwomen well-met).

Margaret Kuhn, a veterinarian by day, plays the comic role of the Drunken Maid. Her daughter, Ellie, is a Snowflake.

“Ballet is your hobby?” I ask Margaret.

“My passion,” she corrects.

In The Nutcracker, age poses no barriers. Retirees Hal and Frances Hale dance like young lovers in the lavish party scene. Drosselmeier, Clara’s enigmatic godfather who gives her the beloved toy nutcracker, is danced by Bud Grant, who didn’t begin ballet classes till he was 40.

After attending the rehearsal, I’m convinced that local movie-casting agents could save themselves work by doing the same thing — because the most beautiful women in Western North Carolina are dancing Asheville’s Nutcracker this year. Three teenage beauties — Elizabeth Nelson, Sarah McGinnis and Anne-Marie Coddington — are flushed from exertion. Among them, there’s already a collective 17 years of performance time invested in this holiday classic.

“It’s so joyful — so much excitement,” Nelson bubbles, giggling from experience.

“But it’s a lot of ups and downs too,” she continues, serious for a second. “It takes a lot out of you emotionally. It’s stressful, with school and homework and trying to have a social life.”

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