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'Nutcracker' ballet graces the stage in Covington

Covington Regional Ballet dancers, front from left, Melody Staples as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Peter Swan as the Cavalier, along with other company members, perform in last year's 'Nutcracker' ballet at the Newton High School Porter Hall in Covington. This year's "Nutcracker" will run 2 and 7 p.m. on Dec. 8 and 3 p.m. on Dec. 9.

Covington Regional Ballet dancers, front from left, Melody Staples as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Peter Swan as the Cavalier, along with other company members, perform in last year's 'Nutcracker' ballet at the Newton High School Porter Hall in Covington. This year's "Nutcracker" will run 2 and 7 p.m. on Dec. 8 and 3 p.m. on Dec. 9.

As a dancer, choreographer and director, Ashley Lazenby Swan can't begin to even count the number of times she's been involved in a production of the holiday dance favorite "The Nutcracker."

"It's too many to count," laughed Lazenby Swan, who with her husband Peter Swan serves as artistic director of the Covington Regional Ballet, which will present "The Nutcracker" three times this coming weekend. "I started dancing in 'The Nutcracker' when I was in middle school and that was a pretty good while ago."

Even though she's heard Tchaikovsky's revered score many times and has observed more than her share of Sugar Plum Fairy dances, Lazenby Swan said there are still elements of the iconic ballet that she's quite enthusiastic about.

"It's funny, as a dancer, I'm not terribly excited about 'The Nutcracker,'" she said. "But as a director, seeing the dancers get excited about it really takes you back. The dancers are the ones who pull you through and it's easy to see why -- you see the magic in them, and it takes you back to that place when you were just discovering it. The kids pull us all through."

It also didn't hurt that the company's attention was somewhat diverted elsewhere earlier this fall as the CRB rehearsed the modern-dance performance of "One: Body, Space & Time," which was staged in October at Oxford College.

"We were ever so slightly engaged," said Lazenby Swan. "'The Nutcracker' got pushed to the backburner a little. It helped to keep it fresh, rather than working on it since August. But it's all going to work out -- it still has the magic."

Lazenby Swan (who along with her husband will dance in this production, as will two guest artists) said in developing this year's performance, she pulled from a chapter of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" manual.

"We really don't do anything different," she said. "We try to design the choreography to highlight the strengths of our dancers -- we want to make it so our dancers shine the best. So the choreography may change a little from year to year, but the style stays the same.

"We are excited, however, that we'll have new costumes this year and we'll also be joined by the Oxford Singing Children during the snow scenes."

With about 40 company members, "The Nutcracker" will utilize some 100 performers on stage at one point or another. Lazenby Swan didn't dance in last year's production as she was recovering from ankle surgery and she said she wouldn't be appearing in any other "Nutcracker" productions this season.

"I need Peter to take care of me," she said. "But he's going to be pretty busy, dancing in 'Nutcrackers' in Gainesville and Cumming."

Prior to presenting "The Nutcracker" in performance, the company will also have three residency shows for the fourth graders in the Newton County School System.

Once "The Nutcracker" closes for 2012, the CRB's dancers will take a brief respite and will then return to the boards to begin preparing the troupe's spring show, "Snow White."

"We'll dive into that in January," said Lazenby Swan. "We'll let everybody get a little rest and then they'll be back and ready to go."

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

If you go

What: "The Nutcracker" ballet, presented by the Arts Association in Newton County

When: 2 and 7 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8 and 3 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 9

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

Cost: Tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for senior citizens and $5 for students and children and can be obtained by calling 770-786-8188 or by visiting www.newtoncountyarts.org.