Conservatory begins 'Nutcracker' rehearsals

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While most children are eating bowls of cereal in front of the television watching Saturday morning cartoons, students of The Conservatory of Dance & Theatre in Galax are busily rehearsing for their upcoming ballet, “The Nutcracker.”

Composer Peter Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” blares from a stereo system, overpowering the excited voices of more than 40 children, dressed in leotards and tights and pale, pink ballet shoes.

“Circle, circle,” instructs Conservatory owner and artistic director Barbara Johnson.

The soft, stuttering “thump, thump, thump” of dozens of pairs of little feet echoes throughout the studio.

Students are rehearsing Act II, which means a handful of Act I performers are still at the studio, waiting for their siblings to finish.

Five-year-old Grayson Gorton, who lives in Patrick County, is playing with his Act I friends while his sister Gracie finishes her rehearsal. He doesn’t mind being at the studio on a Saturday. He plays the roles of Fritz, Clara’s rambunctious brother, and a soldier.

Grayson says dance is “so fun,” though he prefers modern dance to ballet. His sister Gracie likes ballet, he explains with a grimace.

His favorite part of “The Nutcracker” is the battle between the soldiers and the mice. “If you’re a soldier, you get to shoot guns,” he says excitedly, bouncing on a comfy couch in The Conservatory’s waiting room.

“I feel excited and happy,” he says, blue eyes wide. “I’m a soldier. That’s a serious thing.”

Eleanor Rose Ozer, 9, of Galax isn’t as much a fan of dance as she is a fan of being on stage. Her roles include a party boy and a soldier. “You get to go on stage in front of millions of people,” she says. “Well, maybe not millions,” she corrects herself quickly.

“I like the excitement of people watching me,” she says. “Being on stage is fun.”

With a sword in her lap, Eleanor Rose says that her favorite part of “The Nutcracker” is when she drags the “dead” Mouse Queen across the stage.

Whatley Ozer, 11, of Galax will enjoy her debut in the lead role of Clara. Whatley’s other roles include a party girl, a snowflake, Spanish Chocolate attendant and Gala Flower.

“Dance is another way of expressing yourself. If you can’t express something in words, you can express it in dance,” she says.

Like most Conservatory students, she’s at a Saturday practice because dance is “fun.”

Her favorite role is Clara. “It doesn’t seem real yet, because it’s such a great honor to be Clara.” She clasps her hands in her lap and sits straight and tall — the posture of a dancer. “I don’t think I’m going to feel that I’m really Clara until the day of the performance,” she admits, smiling shyly.

For Taylor Edwards, 17, of Ennice, N.C., dance is more than a hobby — it’s a lifelong commitment.

Edwards is scarfing down a salad and a Diet Coke during a break in rehearsals. “I’ve been dancing since I was three,” she says. Her pink pointe shoes and some weird-looking rubber things that are actually used to cushion her toes, are lying beside her. Her bare feet look blistered and swollen from hours of practice, but her sore toes and calluses don’t seem to bother her. “Ballet is all I’ve ever wanted to do.”

Edwards, who for the past two years portrayed Clara, will this year achieve a lifelong dream of performing one of the ballet’s most difficult roles — Sugar Plum Fairy. Her other roles include Marzipan, Snow Princess and Dew Drop.

“My favorite part of The Nutcracker is the pas de deux,” [a dance for two, which she’ll perform with Tino Sauter, 15, of Galax.] “The choreography and lifts are difficult, and as a dancer, I love the challenge of memorizing and perfecting every move.”

Though this is Edwards' last year at The Conservatory — she’s preparing for college-level and professional dance training — she’ll return often to watch her niece, 6-year-old Chloe Vaughn of Galax, take the stage. “I remember dancing when I was her age,” she says, a reminiscent smile on her face, tears in her eyes. “It’s kind of like I’m passing on a torch.”

Vaughn enjoys her ballet classes at The Conservatory because “it’s so fun and you get to learn new dance moves and most of the time, if you’re really good in dance, you get to get extra parts.”

She smiles, laughs and twists her little fingers into the hem of her “I Heart Dance” T-shirt. “Parents, and all kinds of people, love to come out and see their kids on stage. You’re celebrating the Christmas holiday and dance at one time and it is just so fun to share with all your family and friends.”

Vaughn will dance with her class as one of seven Chinese attendants. “Every country has their own special dance, in their own special way,” she says, explaining the significance of her role. “It feels so great. It’s like I’m really happy in my heart. It feels so good to dance with everyone in my class.”

She’ll also be a Land of Sweets fairy. Vaughn admits with childlike candor: “I love the costume.”