The Prince and the Sugarplum Fairy: World-Renowned Dancers Featured in River Valley Production of the Nutcracker

December 1, 2013 | By More

As visions of sugarplums danced in her head, Ashley Miller Davis dreamed of a way to showcase all of the local dancers in the River Valley. Davis, owner and instructor of Just Dance studio in Russellville, began gathering key people in the performing arts community. Those people included Ken Futterer, Ardith Morris, and her then ballet instructor, Phyllis Campbell. She then called on interested community figures, Susie Nicholson and Julie McNeill, and in 2005 The DANCE Foundation was born.

Davis decided that the River Valley needed The Nutcracker, and a board of directors was formed to produce the famous ballet with music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Funds were raised, auditions were held for local dancers, and costumes were ordered. “It was fun and scary, with a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” recalled Davis.

The Nutcracker has become a tradition in the River Valley with productions every other year since 2005. However, this will be the inaugural year for The Nutcracker to perform in The Center for the Arts. “We are very excited that we can accommodate more patrons in this beautiful state-of-the art facility,” said Davis.

Young dancers, all from local studios, have filled the majority of roles. Professionals from New York will play the leading roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and The Prince. “We are beyond excited to announce that the roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince will be danced by Ashley Ellis and Cory Stearns. Cory danced this part for us in 2007 and has since been promoted to principal dancer at the world-renowned American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in New York,” said DANCE Foundation spokesperson Dennis Overman.

“[Stearns] has also graced the pages and cover of Vogue Magazine. He is an internationally recognized and sought after ballet dancer.” Stearns will fly to Arkansas in December to perform in the DANCE Foundation’s Nutcracker after finishing an engagement with the Royal Ballet in London, England. “We are thrilled that he wanted to return, and this is a truly special gift for our community and our local dancers,” said Overman.

Ashley Ellis (Sugar Plum Fairy) is a principal dancer with Boston Ballet. She began her career at ABT in New York. A native of California, Ellis won first prize at the Los Angeles Music Center Spotlight Award in 1999 and went on to become the recipient of the Coca Cola scholarship award in 2000 and 2001. She performed in Spain with Angel Corella’s touring group and joined Corella Ballet in 2008 as a soloist before joining Boston Ballet in 2011. She was promoted to soloist in 2012 and principal dancer in 2013.

There will be three full performances December 13, 14 and 15, with two abbreviated school matinees. More than 100 local participants were cast in April auditions ranging in age from four-years to adult. Davis enlisted DeAnn Petruschke for assistance with choreography since the 2009 production. Petruschke was the 2005 Sugar Plum Fairy. She retired from Ballet Gamonet in Miami, Fla., in 2009, and has returned to lead “Nutcracker Camp” in the summer, rehearsing with the local ballet dancers eight hours a day for 10 days. “The dancers have been practicing three hours a week since August, and the girls hope that she will be proud of their hard work!” said Davis.

Davis emphasized the amount of effort from the community that has been put into the ballet. “We have local dancers from Just Dance, All That Dance, and Jane Freeman’s Studio of Dance in Dardanelle,” said Davis, “and they have been working together, rehearsing every Sunday afternoon since school started. The entire cast is amazing, and I’m very proud of them.”

In addition to local dance instructors Jane Freeman, Brooke Ramsey and Paige Fisher, many other local adults make up the behind the scenes crew, including Avery Coonts, stage manager; Daniel Stahl, technical director; Ken Futterer, sound designer and LeAnne Colvin, production assistant. UALR dance student and Russellville native Brittany Goodlow is serving as Tuesday rehearsal mistress, as well as performing in the ballet.

Local student dancers featured in this production include Star Austin as Clara, Alex Jones as Fritz, Jarrod Apple as the Rat King and Mallory Leavell dancing the role of the Snow Queen. Other featured dancers are Raigan Purtle (Spanish), Ashton Purtle (Dew Drop Fairy), Hannah Grace Knight (Arabian Princess), Grace Hendren and Cameron Davis (Reed Flutes), Elizabeth Newby and Hannah Merritt (Dancing Dolls) and Brittany Goodlow (Toy Soldier).

Other cast members (Clara’s family and Party Guests) include Robert Ford, Erin Pieper, Scott Arnold, Loretta Page, Beth Sorrells, Valerie and Ernie Enchelmeyer, Brooke and Robert Ramsey, Kristen and David Nelson, Katelyn Danzy, Claire Carothers, Destini Nguyen, Adrieanna Leiter, Kasse Appleton, Karis Enchelmeyer, Harper Phillips, Blake Tanner, Braden Tanner, Jaedon Enchelmeyer, Brandon Wood, Grant Wood and Carter Johnson.

Dancing the younger roles (Mice, Soldiers, and Angels) are Marley Johnson, Olive Harrington, Karoline Putnam, Tori Taylor, Brooklyn Nicholson, Mary Kate Honghiran, Taylor Buckholtz, Macey Clayton, Emma Jernigan, Sydney Jones, Lauren Drake, Autumn Guizar, Libby Wills,s Cara Malin, Annabelle Watts, Karrington Bost, Emily Jones, Lauren Owens, Jade Lister, Alana Hilburn, Bayley Pitts, Avery Peel, Brinkley Lake, River Higgs, Breanne Nicholson, Emry Hunnicutt, Carsyn Skelton, Lily Abington, Susanna Manns, Saryn Thompson, Paxtin Lawlis, Chloe Sasser, Ava Ramsey and Hadlee Vines.

Older dancers (Snowflakes, Chinese, Arabian Maidens, Russian, Pages and Flowers) include Emma Grace Gregory, Hannah Jane Colvin, Carson Davis, Isabelle Berryhill, Cadie Beth Young, James Davis, Madison Van Horn, Annabelle Walker, Katie Walker, Halle Woker, Lindsey Jetton, Anna Cate Wojtkowski, London Barnes, Olivia Barnes, Ruthie Jacimore, Lillian Ruston, Alex Tanner, Kaitlin Hunnicutt, Ingrid Christensen, Kenley Beard, Mia Ratliff, Dache Brown, Maggie Gregory, Avery Stahl, Gracie Campbell, Lydia Hale, Wesley Lamberson, Mackenzie Epperson, Ellie Richardson, Rachel Ivy, Clara Lee.

Rounding out the cast are the acrobats (Bon Bons): Mia Smith, Brynn Bates, Cindy Zepeda, Elizabeth Griffin, Layla Turnipseed, Maddie Wojkowski, Olivia Molitor, Sydney Ratliff, Madelyn Davis and Ava Richardson.

The Nutcracker ballet is based on the story “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice” written by E.T.A. Hoffman. It is the story of a young German girl, Clara, who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince and a fierce battle against a Mouse King.

In 1891, the legendary choreographer Marius Petipa commissioned Tchaikovsky to write music for the Nutcracker Ballet. In the 1930s and 40s The Nutcracker made its way to Western Europe performed by Ballet Russe. The first American full length Nutcracker was performed by the San Francisco Ballet and choreographed by W. Christensen.

The DANCE Foundation’s production of The Nutcracker is not the first in Russellville. Long-time dance instructor Glen Irby directed and choreographed the ballet several times during his tenure in Russellville, with his last Nutcracker performed in 1988 when he moved to South Carolina. Irby was Ashley Miller Davis’ teacher, mentor and friend. Davis invited Irby to return to teaching at her studio, Just Dance, in 2005, assisting with Davis’ first Nutcracker. Irby continued to share his dance knowledge and experience in the final years of his life, teaching with Davis until his passing in 2010.

The Nutcracker is not the only purpose of the DANCE Foundation. DANCE is an acronym: Developing Arts—Nurturing Cultural Excellence. “Our goal is to make dance accessible and to provide ways for our local dancers to grow and further develop their talents,” stated Davis. The DANCE Foundation hosts several intensive workshops throughout each year to make sure students have opportunities to learn different styles of dance, such as tap, jazz and ballet, from professional dancers.

Recently, former Russellville resident Erin West taught a tap dance intensive workshop open to anyone who signed up. West, a professional performing artist working and living in New York, taught and inspired young dancers. Showing proof that dreams can come true for a girl from Russellville.

For a few years, on non-Nutcracker years, another show entitled The Christmas Story, a telling of the Biblical story of Christmas through dance and song, was performed. After a couple of off years with no Christmas production, the DANCE Foundation premiered its new show, ‘Tis the Season in 2012 in the new Center for the Arts on the Russellville High School campus. ‘Tis the Season, to be repeated in 2014, features tap, ballet, jazz and Radio City Rockettes-style dance routines intermingled with stunning vocal and instrumental musical numbers. Auditions will be held in April 2014.

Of course these performances have a hefty price tag. Bringing in the professionals for The Nutcracker alone costs around $8,000. So the DANCE Foundation hosts several fundraisers throughout the year to help keep the participants’ costs to a minimum. This year the Foundation entertained a large crowd at its Bluejeans and Ballet gala in October, featuring dancing by some of the Nutcracker cast. Other fundraisers included spaghetti dinners from Italian Gardens, Krispy Kreme donut sales, and the first annual Sugar Plum Color Run at Pleasant View Park this past November.

Current DANCE Foundation Board members are Ken Futterer, LeAnne Colvin, Page Phillips, Laura Griffin, Robert Ford, Ardith Morris, Don Jacimore, Christy Leavell, Paige Fisher, Kerrie Carothers and Trish Gregory.

In a recent fundraising letter, Dennis Overman said it best, “The season of dancing Sugar Plums, Waltzing Flowers and Marching Soldiers is upon us: The Nutcracker. This much-loved production has fast become a glittering holiday tradition, fascinating the young and delighting the young at heart.”

The Nutcracker will be presented at 7 p.m. December13and14andat2p.m.December 15 at The Center for the Arts on the RHS campus. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for children 12 and younger and are available at all Arvest Bank locations and at The Center Box Office during business hours. More information: (479) 968-6888.

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