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En pointe 

Ballet Arkansas goes pro.

click to enlarge REHEARSING: Grace Tilley and Case Dillard in costume for the "Nutcracker."
  • REHEARSING: Grace Tilley and Case Dillard in costume for the "Nutcracker."

The second act of “The Nutcracker” is unfolding behind the picture windows of Shuffles & Ballet II, a dance studio in a west Little Rock shopping plaza. Six professional dancers (the soldiers, the princess, etc.) mingle with a handful of older teens and a gaggle of children as young as 6 years old (angels, bon bons). The music is that familiar Russian earworm, Tchaikovsky's masterpiece of catchiness, reminiscent of “Fantasia” and “Tetris” and holiday ads for everything from beer to pancakes. “Call the IRS, you get ‘Nutcracker' music,” says executive director Leisa Pulliam, who just happened to be on the phone with the taxman when a reporter visited.

In December, “The Nutcracker” takes on an inevitability akin to death and taxes; it has been an end-of-year staple at Robinson Center Music Hall (where it will again be performed this 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12, and 3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13) since time immemorial. This year, though, for the first time in a decade, the 160-odd children and junior ballerinas from 29 dance programs around the state will be led by an artistic director and professional dancers in the full employ of Ballet Arkansas. The 31-year-old non-profit organization, lately unencumbered by debt, has spent 2009 assembling a company that puts muscle behind its stated goal of developing dance and dancers in Arkansas.

Most of the future dancers on this night are a squirmy line of black unitards and pink tights, sitting cross-legged beneath a long, mirrored wall. The room seems skinny for such numbers, and low, as dancers being lifted come perilously close to the turning blades of ceiling fans. On goes the Chinese Dance, then the Arabian Dance. The little ballerinas fidget. Then the three male members of the professional company burst across the floor, swooping, twirling, leaping. Dancers Case Dillard and Paul Tillman tumble lickety-split toward the front wall, stopping just shy of the now terrified/ecstatic little girls.

When the routine finishes, the room erupts in applause. Later, former Ballet Arkansas board member and “Nutcracker” cast member Perry Young says, “When you see those three guys dancing the Russian, and I'm getting goosebumps telling you about this, there's no way you can't say that's cool.” On this particular Sunday, though, it's just another number in the rehearsal. Away from the sweatshirts and textbooks on the edges of the floor, Dillard crouches against a wall and takes a pencil to the New York Times Sunday crossword puzzle as he rests for his next number, a resident pro among the sprawling cast of young hopefuls.

Having full-time dancers, rather than bringing in “Nutcracker”-only performers for a couple of weeks at year's end, influences the children, Pulliam says as she watches: “It shows kids that people really do go on to become ballerinas for a living.”

 

Gah. That Russian dance.  Go ahead and YouTube it, then try not to hum it.

“I've had that stuck in my head for 27 years,” Dillard says, laughing. “Welcome to the club.”

If you wanted to convince dancers ? and especially boys, who have to weather years of taunts to grow up in the ballet ? that there's a future for them, you could do worse than to introduce them to Dillard. He's brick-jawed, ripped ? able and encouraged to hoist ballerinas into the air. So what if he was so dedicated to dancing that he didn't even go to, you know, school dances. He left Pulaski Heights Junior High after eighth grade to attend a boarding school in Virginia, went to college in Pittsburgh and then did three years on Broadway grinding out eight shows a week for Disney. It was the big-time, but he realized he was just going through the motions. “I didn't get into this business for that,” he says. “I got into this for what we're doing now.”

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