Holiday performance: 'Twas the Night'

Coleen Duncan directs tradition holiday ballet for 11th year

Performances of the holiday ballet, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," by the Dancers Repertory Theatre will be at 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. on three days: Sunday, Dec. 6, Saturday, Dec. 12, and Sunday, Dec. 13, at the Woodside High Performing Arts Center, 199 Churchill Ave. Tickets are $20 for adults and $15 for seniors and children. Go to twasthenight.org to buy tickets.

By Kate Daly Special to the Almanac

Whether she's wearing her new jeweled collar and leaping around in her red 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 as the daughter mouse in a mask she'll be wearing crystals to accent her eyes because "Coleen loves crystals, and we love Coleen."

Coleen Duncan of Atherton has spent the last 18 of her 50 years in a wheelchair, but that hasn't slowed down her dance career. This is her 11th season volunteering as the artistic director and choreographer of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," a traditional holiday ballet put on by the Dancers Repertory Theatre.

The six-show run starts on Dec. 6 in Woodside. The production has such a faithful following of family, friends and fans it usually sells out. The bejeweled "Twas" logo sweatshirts are pretty popular too.

Amelia first appeared in "Twas" as a teddy bear when she was 5.

The scene where the little bears bounce around in their furry onesies is a "showstopper," says Susan Hines, a member of the group's auxiliary board. She and her husband have devoted countless hours to the production since their 15-year-old daughter Kerrianne joined eight years ago.

Adding the young dancers is just one of many changes Ms. Duncan has made since she took over the show.

She started dancing around the same time "Twas" was created in 1969 as a family-friendly alternative to "The Nutcracker" ballet. The narrative is based on Clement Moore's poem set in the 1800s. A medley of recorded classical and holiday instrumental music serves as the backdrop to more than an hour of dancing by performers who this year range in age from 5 to 55.

The cast also includes Kayla Hollister of Woodside, who started out as a teddy bear four years ago and has now moved up to being an owl and a sugar plum.

The fifth-grader enjoys her weekly classic ballet class at Menlo Park Academy of Dance, but says what she really looks forward to is rehearsing every weekend in the fall and then performing "Twas" because "it's really fun, so I feel really happy."

Ms. Hines credits Ms. Duncan for making "Twas" such a positive experience. Her dedication is infectious, Ms. Hines says. "It fosters teamwork and community but still holds dancers to the highest standards of their ability."

"I love every minute of it; it literally takes all year," says Ms. Duncan

As soon as the show closes she starts working again on budgets, ordering new costumes, finding new music, adding characters and taking out others to showcase the talent and encourage audiences to come back each year for fresh surprises.

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

Ms. Duncan shares a long history with the show. Her mother, Sylvia Duncan, recently retired as co-owner of Menlo Park Academy of Dance. For years the studio co-sponsored "Twas," but is now participating in Menlowe Ballet's new production of "It's a Wonderful Nutcracker" at the Menlo Atherton Center for the Performing Arts in mid-December.

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

Ms. Duncan danced in "Twas" from the time she was 8 until she graduated from Menlo-Atherton High School and went to college. She pursued a profession in dancing and acting, got married and switched gears to work for the San Jose Sharks.

A diabetic since childhood, Ms. Duncan experienced a run of poor health when she got older, and that landed her in a wheelchair.

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

She has rods in her neck and wears a body brace to hold herself erect. She has shoes on the end of her prostheses and can stand with support.

During hours-long rehearsals at Arrillaga Family Recreation Center in Menlo Park and Dance Arts Center in Redwood City, she is in constant motion, shuffling her "feet" 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, takes a nap in the corner.

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

Sophia Clemente, 11, of Menlo Park has been busy teaching the girls dancing as dollies, snowflakes, reindeer and presents. This is her fifth year doing "Twas." She auditioned for the new Nutcracker but chose to continue with "Twas" because she says: "The energy is really nice, and everyone is really nice. I really love Coleen; she's an amazing person."

Back for her 10th season is dancer Carolyn Godfrey, who plays the mother mouse, human mother and Rudolph. "This show is hard for Coleen," Ms. Godfrey says. "She puts everything she's got into it and it's so inspiring, the sheer creativity and will.

"It's absolutely magical ... this incredible atmosphere and camaraderie."

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