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Nutcracker takes on a new perspective

Jaime Robtison is seeing "The Nutcracker" from an entirely different perspective this year.

For the first time in some 20 winters, Robtison, the artistic director of the Covington Regional Ballet, won't be dancing as the Sugar Plum Fairy in Tchaikovsky's holiday classic, which is being staged on Dec. 1 and 2 at Porter Memorial Hall on the campus of Newton High School.

"My friend and dance partner, Wei Bongsheng, retired, so I decided to take a year off," said the Virginia native, who owns and operates Mainstream Dance in Covington. "I've got a student who's ready to take over the role."

Sixteen-year-old Liz Stillerman will assume the ballet's primary dancing role, working with professional Gerard Alexander of Atlanta, who, like Robtison, teaches at the Atlanta Ballet. Although Robtison is confident in Stillerman's abilities, she's not sure she's ready to leave the role just yet.

"I'm just testing the water to see if I can stand it," joked Robtison. "I do get a little nostalgic every once in a while - it pulls on my heart a little bit when I'm coaching Liz because I still love the role."

Now that she's given up a major role in the production, which is presented by the Arts Association in Newton County, Robtison has been able to spend more time to mold the artistic direction of the performance, which includes some 40 ballet company members and another 40 children, adults and volunteers.

"It's not necessarily a different perspective," she said. "But it's certainly not as overwhelming as it has been some years when I tried to do everything. Back then, I didn't have time to work on the details and fine-tune the presentation. Having this time, and more help, has enabled me to make the work crisp and clear."

Robtison added that the appointment of Harmony Clair of Atlanta as assistant artistic director has been an asset to the proceedings.

"I met Harmony at the Atlanta Ballet, and she's danced with the Boston and San Francisco ballets," said Robtison. "She's amazing and she's really brought some great things to the production."

Creating a Junior Apprenticeship program for the ballet company has increased the number of dancing participants in this year's shows, and members of the public were invited to audition for non-dancing roles. Robtison said she's noticed that as the years have passed, audience size has increased.

"I think we've probably had a cast that was this big before, but the company has never been bigger," she said. "In the early years, it was kind of sparse - it was mostly just parents who came. But in the last couple of years, attendance and participation has been amazing. This is becoming a community tradition for the holidays."

In addition to the two public performances, the ballet company will perform a trio of residency shows for area students on Friday morning at Porter Memorial Hall. And Robtison said she hopes it won't be too long before more "Nutcracker" performances can be held.

"If participation is strong, we'd love to be able to do more shows," she said.

Besides celebrating the growth of the Covington Regional Ballet, Robtison is also excited about the artistic progress the company is making.

"They've become so technically strong," she said of her dancers. "The level of dancing is amazing because Covington is such a small town and ballet is such a fine art. To have this many great dancers in the community tells me this is a special place. They've worked so hard and it's really paying off."

Chris Starrs is a freelance writer based in Athens, Ga. If you have a feature story idea, contact Karen Rohr, features editor, at karen.rohr@rockdalecitizen.com.

SideBar: If You Go

What: "The Nutcracker" ballet, featuring the Covington Regional Ballet and presented by the Arts Association in Newton County, along with BB&T, SteelCo Buildings, Wagner Service Solutions and The Newton Citizen

When: 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 1 and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 2

Where: Porter Memorial Hall on the campus of Newton High School, 140 Ram Drive

Cost: Tickets are $22 for adults, $19 for seniors and $11 for students. For ticket information, call 706-786-8188 or visit www.newtoncountyarts.org.