The Suite Life
Dancers began work on 'Nutcracker' in August

It's logical to think that for Jaime Robtison, the artistic director of the Covington Regional Ballet, the month of December means "The Nutcracker."

The reality, however, is an entirely different situation.

"Actually, August means 'Nutcracker' to me," quipped the veteran dancer. "We begin rehearsing the company then. Then I spent October and November fine-tuning, cleaning up and working on everybody's stamina. By the time December gets here, everybody's coming back from Thanksgiving break and I'm pushing them all to their physical limits."

As has become a tradition in the east metro area, the Arts Association in Newton County will present Tchaikovsky's holiday classic on Dec. 13 and 14 at Porter Hall on the campus of Newton High School.

The production - which includes some 50 ballet company members and another 30 children, adults and volunteers - will also be staged for Newton County fourth graders as part of the Arts Association's in-school residency outreach program.

Robtison, who has directed the local "Nutcracker" performance for the last seven years, always seems to find some way to add a new wrinkle to the production. This year is no different.

"It's going to be very pretty, maybe the prettiest 'Nutcracker' we've ever had," she said. 'We've got a ton of new costumes and we've tweaked the choreography a little bit. There are no changes in the traditional storyline, but this is going to be a visually beautiful production."

This will be the second year that Robtison has cast Liz Stillerman, a 17-year-old senior from Eastside High School, in the key role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. She'll be paired with "independent contractor" Peter Swan as the Cavalier.

"Peter is a professional dancer who works all over Georgia," said Robtison, who has been involved - as a dancer, choreographer and/or director - in "Nutcracker" productions for 20 years. "He danced as the Prince in our presentation of 'Cinderella' in the spring."

A gifted dancer and teacher who has performed in the companies of the Atlanta Ballet and the Richmond Ballet, Robtison said working with the youthful dancers in the Covington Regional Ballet helps keep "The Nutcracker" fresh for her.

"Each year, it feels different," said Robtison, the founder and director of Mainstream Dance on the downtown Square in Covington. "In some respects, it is the same-old, same-old, but we've got different dancers every year, which is a nice thing to have if you own your own studio.

"If this was a professional company and we had the same folks with the same skill level dancing year after year, it might get tedious. But here we've got different dancers with a different range of levels, so we re-choreograph each year. You really have to be creative."

Buncie Hay Lanners, executive director of the Arts Association, said the progress the ballet company has made through the years has been nothing less than remarkable.

"I think that every year I've said that year's production was the best ever," said Lanners. "It's unbelievable the difference we've seen from 2001 to now. Every year the show has become increasingly finer-tuned.

"And you can see the emerging maturity as dancers and as students. There will be five girls graduating out of the ballet this year and that's kind of a penultimate experience because those kids, who started out so young and inexperienced, are now the company's senior members."

Lanners added that she generally says the most recent production of "The Nutcracker" is the best because she means it.

"Last year's show was wonderful," she said. "But Jaime has set the bar very high. She gets more out of those dancers than I could ever imagine possible. We're so fortunate to have an artist like her in this community. People are blown away by the quality of performance and dance in this area."

Robtison said she's been ably aided by assistant artistic director Harmony Clair, who will be participating in her final local production of "The Nutcracker."

"This is her last production - she's getting ready to get married," said Robtison of Clair, who has danced with the Boston and San Francisco ballets. "She's worked with me for two years and this is kind of a bittersweet time. She's so amazingly talented and she works so well with the younger dancers. She's taken a lot of pressure off me. I do a much better job when I can divert some of the responsibility and have someone to bounce ideas off of."

"The Nutcracker" is one of the Arts Association's best-attended offerings, and Lanners said she expects sellout crowds again this year.

"Last year, we had two complete full houses," she said. "I urge people get their tickets early."

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

SideBar: If you go

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

When: 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 13 and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 14

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

Cost: Tickets are $22, $19 for seniors and $10 for students and can be obtained by calling 770-786-8188 or by visiting www.newtoncountyarts.org.