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Magical performances: Salisbury dancers take the stage as part of Great Russian Nutcracker in Durham

By Susan Shinn Turner
For the Salisbury Post

DURHAM — Just as it’s the season of Christmas and Hanukkah, it’s also the Season of the Nutcracker.

And just as dainty snowflakes and tiny mice flitted across the stage of Keppel Auditorium this weekend, a cadre of Rowan County dancers performed in Durham on Wednesday and Thursday as part of the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker.

The collaboration between Moscow Ballet and Spotlight Dance Co. in Salisbury continues to flourish.

Three years ago, through the small world of dance, studio owner Marianna Jarrett developed a relationship with Moscow Ballet. Since then, open auditions for young dancers have taken place each fall at Spotlight.

There are some subtle differences in the Great Russian Nutcracker, with nods to Russian culture and heritage, Jarrett said. For example, the main character is named Masha — not Clara — and there’s no Sugarplum Fairy, but there are snow maidens. The professional Russian dancers showcased the Chinese, Arabian, French, Spanish, and Russian variations.

The Salisbury dancers’ appearance is part of the Moscow Ballet’s community engagement program, “Dance with Us.” Each season, more than 6,000 dancers get the opportunity to take the stage with the pros. Moscow Ballet sent a ballerina to work with Jarrett, who in turn taught choreography to the Rowan County contingent.

“I don’t know if our girls really grasped how big of an opportunity it was until they got there,” Jarrett pointed out.

Tessa Brown did.

This was her last Nutcracker. Tessa, 17, is a senior at Salisbury High School.

“It was both nerve-wracking and exciting,” said Tessa, who’s now danced twice at Carolina Theatre. She’s been a snow maiden both times. “There’s always that thrill of getting on stage, especially with a group as prestigious as Moscow Ballet.”

This was also Jillian Towns’ second year dancing in the Durham production. The 8-year-old, who dances at Spotlight, is a third-grader at Salisbury Academy, where she has “the best teacher on earth, Miss (Kristen) Rocko. She just graduated from Catawba.”

Cheering Jillian on in Durham were her parents, Erron and Nichole Towns, big brother Connor, and grandparents Mike and B.J. Connor.

“What’s been really sweet is the families, friends and teachers who have come to see the girls dance,” Jillian’s mom said. “The community support from Rowan County has been huge.”

“It’s an incredible opportunity for these Salisbury girls to be able to dance with international professionals of this caliber,” Jillian’s grandmother added. “The performances were magical for us as well as for the girls.”

The Rev. Mark Conforti agreed. He and his wife, Mary Allen, and their sons Connor, 13, and Tyler, 11, were on hand to see daughter 8-year-old Mia dance.

“I got goose bumps when the curtain rose and the music started,” Conforti said. “Seeing Mia’s glowing smile has kept me smiling.”

Jillian was also smiling after reconnecting with dancers her age last year. “I got to have some really strong friendships with them.”

One of those dancers is Addison Connell of Steppin’ Out Dance Co. They are friends from church and also go to summer camp together.

“I’m just so glad Addison has the love of dance like I do,” said her mom Molly, who takes jazz and tap classes in Clemmons. “This was an experience Addison will have forever.”

Addison’s dad, Chris, was completely wowed by the performance.

“Addison is all about dance,” he said. “To see her on stage in front of hundreds of people is something I’m very proud of. Now to get her younger sister Carter to try out next year — that would be awesome.”

Jillian and Addison are already looking forward to the performances next year.

So is Ana Dufour, who’s been a snowflake the past three years. She has two proud big brothers, Joseph, 19, and Gabriel, 14. Her dad, Jerry, died in 2018, but saw her Durham debut two years ago.

“What an experience!” said her mom, Raquel. “The cast was accommodating and helpful. They wanted these kids to succeed and have an excellent experience.”

Jarrett said Saturday morning that the Rowan County dancers have already been invited to return to the Carolina Theatre stage in 2019. This year’s auditions took place in late October and the girls practiced every Saturday for eight weeks. It was hard work but well worth it, Jarrett said.

“It really is a great experience,” she said, “and it’s an opportunity for all dance students in Rowan County.”

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