TUPELO - Long before they became the Claras of this year's Tupelo Ballet production of "The Nutcracker," Addison Eaves and Catherine Sanders played the beginner roles.

Eaves was a first-grader when she made her "Nutcracker" debut. "I was a Peppermint," she said.

Sanders got her "Nutcracker" start in the third grade. "I was a mouse that first year," she said.

Now sixth-graders, Eaves and Sanders are excited about sharing the same role in the 37th annual production of "The Nutcracker" on Saturday, Dec. 7, in the Tupelo High School Performing Arts Center. 

Though the dancers and locations have changed over the years, Tupelo Ballet artistic director Sharon Long said it's the same beloved story that has become a holiday standard in both the city and the region.

"It's the story of a little girl and her dream," Long said. "It opens the Christmas season, as far as I'm concerned."

The dream comes to life with 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. performances. Tickets are on sale at www.tupeloballet.com. A school show for area students is set for 9:30 a.m. Friday, Dec. 6.

Eaves will play Clara, the girl who falls asleep on Christmas Eve and dreams of helping the Nutcracker battle the Mouse King, in the matinee. Sanders takes over the role that evening.

About 200 people, including adults and guest dancers, are in a "Nutcracker" cast that's been rehearsing since September.

"It makes me really nervous and excited at the same time," Eaves said. "We work so hard, but we know it's going to pay off. We're going to get on stage and it's going to look good in the end."

Sanders said her first "Nutcracker" inspired her to pursue the Clara role.

"I loved performing and being in the 'Nutcracker,' so I went on to audition in the sixth grade for Clara," she said. "I was really nervous, but I decided to do it. It was a really good experience. It's such an honor."

The Tupelo "Nutcracker" makes a few adjustments from year to year based on the dancers performing and set needs, according to Long.

"We try to change the choreography ever year according to their skills. We always try to have new costumes," she said. "Last year, we purchased a new first act backdrop."

In addition to the student dancers and local actors, the "Nutcracker" also enlists guest artists. Paul and Megan Tillman of Arkansas Ballet, who have performed with the company  and conduct summer workshops, are returning this year.

Another returnee is the North Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. This is the 15th year for the NMSO to perform with the Tupelo Ballet, which Long said is the only "Nutcracker" in Mississippi presented with a full symphony.

"We have a very good relationship with the symphony," Long said. "The maestro (Steven Byess) is amazing to work with."

While Eaves and Sanders prepare to play Clara, older company dancers like Mary Conlee Wilson and Madison Denton are eagerly awaiting another "Nutcracker" performance.

Wilson and Denton, both high school juniors, have played multiple roles since making their "Nutcracker" debuts as angels in the first grade. This year, they're mechanical dolls and dancing with the Waltz Corps.

"Performing in Nutcracker every year, you get to know everyone in your company," Denton said. "So every year, you get to see other people progress when you progress."

Wilson said she's proud to be a part of the Tupelo "Nutcracker" tradition.

"I think it's cool that everyone can come together to dance and do what we love," she said. "It's really fun to do it every year because you get different roles. It's a fun performance to be a part of. It's exciting because I feel like it's getting better every year."

bobby.pepper@journalinc.com

TWITTER: @bobbypepper30

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