The search for snowflakes

Saturday, October 5, 2002

Little girls stared at the numbers stuck to their leotards as dance teacher Jackie Robertson announced who will be snowflakes or angels or mice or butterflies in the upcoming production of "The Great Russian Nutcracker" at the Show Me Center. Small squeals and gasps escaped as their numbers were called.

The audition wasn't like the near life-and-death grasping for roles in "A Chorus Line."

"It didn't matter as long as I got in," said 12-year-old Chelby Chezem, who with her friend, Morgan Peters, was cast as one of the small mice.

Hair was up and toes were pointed for ballerina Rusudan Kvitisiani Friday afternoon as she auditioned about 60 girls and two boys at Dance Extensions in Jackson. Most of their moms responded to Robertson's plea for them to leave for a couple of hours. Others nervously peeked through a window into the dance studio.

Besides Robertson's dance school in Jackson, others in Sikeston, Mo., Farmington, Mo., and Chester, Ill., were represented at the audition. Chester dance teacher Suzanne Fleming said her students were both excited and nervous. "Excited because they wanted to be with a Russian ballerina. And they are nervous, although they were mistaking it for hunger," she said.

Carol Gilpin, whose daughter, Rachael, attends Fleming's The Dance Company in Chester, drove all the way from Evansville, Ill., another 15 miles north of Chester.

Rachael didn't act nervous in the days leading up to the audition but afterward admitted she was.

"It really came out in the car," her mother said. Rachael will be an angel.

In a sense, these girls are ahead of Kvitisiani. She didn't dance in her first "Nutcracker" until she was 22. But she has been dancing since 1981, when she was 5. She auditioned and was chosen to attend a special ballet school, where she remained for eight years.

The United States has many ballet schools, Kvitisiani says, but the special schools in Russia teach children ballet very intensely -- six days a week. There are no guarantees students will succeed, but she says, "Eighty percent will become ballet dancers."

This is her first engagement with the Moscow Ballet.

In conducting the auditions, Kvitisiani evaluates the children first for size because the dancers have to fit into the company's costumes. Then she looks for dancing ability and the ability to learn quickly. "I wanted to see which ones could more quickly catch on to the combinations," she said.

"... Sometimes they are not so talented but can use their brain."

The ballet will be presented Nov. 18.

Robertson is responsible for rehearsing the children every Saturday until the performance. "I will not give you any grace for missing," she warned them after the audition. "You have to be, like, dead."

Rehearsals for some of the older dancers in the section called the Variations began immediately after the auditions Friday night. The younger ones in the roles of party children were due back at 7 this morning to rehearse. Kvitisiani had to leave by noon to get to Joplin, Mo., by tonight and begin auditioning another group.

She has been in the United States since Sept. 1 in her role as the children's ballet mistress for the company. She is auditioning and rehearsing children in 17 cities on the Moscow Ballet's tour. She also will dance with the company once the performances begin, though not in a large role.

"I'm glad," she said. "I'll be very tired."

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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