Holiday tradition returns to town

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Stephanie Reese walked into her parents' living room in October with her stomach in knots.

"I can't do this," she announced.

Despite years as a dance instructor, Reese had never put on a full-length production, and she was regretting her decision to stage "The Nutcracker."

"I was terrified," she said. "But I decided to follow the motto: Do it afraid.

"That means that no matter how scary something is, with the power of God, you can do it if it's meant to be."

"The Nutcracker" has been staged every holiday season for as long as dancers in Steamboat Springs can remember, but the tradition ended when Julie Sneeder, owner of Northwest Ballet left town four years ago.

"No one else wanted to do it," Reese said. "So I decided to do it. It's so traditional and goes with the season."

Little did she know how much work was ahead.

More than 100 people auditioned, and Reese gave everyone a part.

"I have two casts because so many kids wanted to be in it," she said. "This is huge."

Amanda More, 22, has been dancing in Steamboat since she was 7 years old and had performed in "The Nutcracker" for 12 years before Sneeder left town. In those 12 years, she danced the part of a mouse, a soldier, a snowflake and a flower. She always wanted to play the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

"I always looked up to girls who got (that part)," More said. "It's a big role. When Stephanie asked me if I wanted to try out for the part, I said yes immediately.

"Stephanie definitely choreographed the part above my dance ability. She definitely pushes everyone to their highest standards."

More was happy to hear that "The Nutcracker" was coming back to Steamboat. It is a holiday production that everyone looked forward to doing, she said. This production, however, is going to be completely different from the ones staged by Northwest Ballet, she said.

"In my opinion, this one is way above and beyond what we did before," More said. "When I danced with Julie, it was the same thing over and over every year. She never changed the choreography."

Reese started watching tapes of "The Nutcracker" early last year, making notes on the choreography.

"I took ideas from all of them, but most of all, I was impressed by the Royal Ballet's version," she said. "When it was time, God just woke me up in the morning and told me to get to work. I choreographed the whole thing in two days. It just happened.

"I choreograph what I feel and see. The music speaks to me."

Rehearsals started in late August, but Reese had doubts that she was going to be able to pull off a production of this size.

By September, reality set in. She finally decided to place an order for backdrops and realized that she had waited too long. Nothing was available.

Her dad volunteered to build props with the help of Tyler Arroyo, Riana Severinghaus, Joel Bartlett, Damon Hill, Martin Schiffbauer and Darian Hill. Artist Natalie Chaney painted the props.

She recruited her mom, Connie Reese, to make more than 200 costumes.

"(My mom) made me an authentic 'Gone with the Wind' dress (for her part as the mother). She spent over 400 hours on my dress alone," Reese said. "The set is simple. The costumes are elaborate."

The core of the "The Nutcracker" cast is students of the Steamboat Ballet School of Dance and members of the school's dance company, Steamboat Ballet Theatre.

But one dancer stands out. Reese brought in British dance instructor and choreographer Michael Vernon to dance the part of Clara's godfather, Drosselmeyer.

Vernon was trained at the Royal Ballet School in London and performed with the Royal Ballet before moving to New York.

Over the years, his choreography has been performed by the American Ballet Theatre, Eglevsky Ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov and the Hong Kong Ballet.

He has taught in China, Germany, Australia, England and with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in New York.

Reese met Vernon almost five years ago at a dance when she took a workshop with the Manhattan Dance Project in Denver.

"He came in to teach, and the more he taught, the more I liked him," she said. "That evening there was a sit-down dinner, and he sat at our table.

"We started talking, and he knew my hometown (Beaumont, Texas) and he knew my instructors," she said. "We just hit it off, and we've become friends."

Vernon came to visit Reese in October, and her mother jokingly suggested that he dance in her production of "The Nutcracker."

"He said, 'Make me an offer,'" Reese said. "I did, and he accepted. I was blown away that he wanted to do this." Vernon came out in November to learn his part. "It was strange to tell him what to do."

Vernon returned to New York, and Reese finished rehearsals by dancing her part and his.

"Dancing with Michael is like a dream come true," More said. "I've known about Michael Vernon since I was 13, but never in my wildest dreams did I think that I would dance with him."

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