A&E

She makes me feel like dancing

Peninsula dancers are loyal to longstanding holiday show

Whether she's wearing her new jeweled collar and leaping around in her fur-trimmed cat costume or pirouetting as Raggedy Ann in painted red pointe shoes with rhinestones, 14-year-old Amelia Threatt of Menlo Park will be sparkling on stage.

Even when she's scurrying around as a mouse in a mask, she'll be wearing crystals to accent her eyes, because, in her words, "Coleen loves crystals, and we love Coleen."

The "Coleen" in question is Coleen Duncan of Atherton, now in her 11th year as volunteer artistic director and choreographer of "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," a traditional holiday ballet put on by Peninsula-based Dancers Repertory Theatre.

This year's six-show run opens Sunday, Dec. 6, in Woodside.

The narrative of the show is based on the famous 1823 Clement Moore poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas." A medley of recorded classical and holiday instrumental music will serve as the soundtrack to more than an hour of dancing by performers who this year range in age from 5 to 55.

The production has such a faithful following of family, friends and fans that it typically sells out, Duncan said, adding that the bejeweled "'Twas" logo sweatshirts they sell each year are pretty popular, too.

Jewel-loving Threatt first appeared in "'Twas" at age 5, when she danced the role of a teddy bear. The scene where the little bears bounce around in their furry onesies is an annual "showstopper," according to Susan Hines, a member of the group's auxiliary board. Hines and her husband have devoted countless hours to the production since their 15-year-old daughter, Kerrianne, joined the company eight years ago.

Duncan herself was 8 years old when she first danced in "'Twas," which was first staged in 1969 and intended as a family-friendly alternative to numerous "Nutcracker" productions on the Midpeninsula. She continued to perform in the show each year until she graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School and left for college. She went on to pursue a career as a professional dancer and actor before getting married and switching gears to work for the San Jose Sharks.

Yet dance has always remained her passion.

Now 50 years old, Duncan has spent the last 18 of her 50 years in a wheelchair, but she hasn't let it slow down her dance career.

A diabetic since childhood, Duncan experienced a run of poor health in her thirties that limited her mobility.

"I had a failed kidney-pancreas transplant, had an allergic reaction, have lost some fingers, a leg and a foot, and am on dialysis three times a week," the director explained.

She also has rods in her neck and wears a body brace to hold herself erect, though she can stand with support.

During long rehearsals at the Arrillaga Family Recreation Center in Menlo Park and at Dance Arts Center in Redwood City, Duncan is in constant motion, shuffling to mobilize her wheelchair or illustrate a kick, clapping to emphasize beats and calling out steps. Meanwhile, her service dog, a golden retriever named Cookie, naps in the corner.

Among Duncan's loyal cast members is Kayla Hollister of Woodside, who started out as a teddy bear four years ago and has now graduated to the roles of owl and sugar plum. The fifth-grader enjoys her weekly classical ballet class at Menlo Park Academy of Dance, but says what she really looks forward to is rehearsing every weekend in the fall in preparation to perform "'Twas."

"It's really fun," Hollister said of the rehearsal and performance experience. "I feel really happy."

Hines credits Duncan for making "'Twas" such a positive experience for the performers. Duncan's dedication is infectious, Hines said, adding, "(She) fosters teamwork and community but still holds dancers to the highest standards of their ability."

It's clear "'Twas" is a labor of love for the veteran director.

"I love every minute of it," Duncan said, adding that the preparation and rehearsal process "literally takes all year."

As soon as the show closes each December, the director begins working on the budget for the following year's production, ordering new costumes, finding new music, adding characters and taking out others in order to showcase the full range of student talent and encourage audiences to come back each year for fresh surprises.

She estimates there are 20,000 "bits and pieces" of costumes in bins in her garage and storage unit. That number does not include her vast inventory of scenery and props, such as Santa's antique sleigh.

For Duncan, as for many in her cast, "'Twas" is a longstanding family tradition. Her mother, Sylvia Duncan, recently retired as co-owner of Menlo Park Academy of Dance.

For many years, the studio co-sponsored "'Twas," but for the first time this year is participating instead in Menlowe Ballet's new production of "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker," which will be performed at the Menlo Atherton Performing Arts Center Dec. 12-20.

The shift has impacted the cast of "'Twas," Duncan explained. Last year, there were 152 dancers involved; this year there are 88.

In the beginning of the season, Duncan hires older students to demonstrate dance steps to the younger kids.

For the past few months, 11-year-old Sophia Clemente of Menlo Park has been busy teaching the younger girls who dance the roles of dolls, snowflakes, reindeer and presents. This is Clemente's fifth year with the production. She also auditioned for "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker," but chose to continue with "'Twas" because, she said, "The energy is really nice, and everyone is really nice. I love Coleen; she's an amazing person."

Back for her 10th season is adult dancer Carolyn Godfrey, who plays the mother mouse, human mother and Rudolph. Duncan, Godfrey said, "puts everything she's got into the show."

"It's inspiring, the sheer creativity and will," she added. "It's absolutely magical, this incredible atmosphere and camaraderie."

What: "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," presented by Dancers Repertory Theatre

Where: Woodside High Performing Arts Center, 199 Churchill Ave., Woodside

When: Dec. 6, 12 and 13, at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m.

Cost: $15-$20

Info: Go to twasthenight.org or email cduncan@twasthenight.org.

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