Leotard-clad dancers stretched at gravity-defying angles, while gangly teenagers with seemingly endless legs towered en pointe.
A girl hunched over homework as a counterpart stitched elastic bands and ribbons onto her shoes, listening to the youngest among them, who tittered gleefully, cradled comfortably in the laps of older girls.
Ballet, in all its glory, was front and center at the Maple Conservatory of Dance in Irvine.
Last Friday, about 80 performers pieced together pliés, arabesques and ports de bras in a nearly two-hour run-through of the Maple Youth Ballet's rendition of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." The dance company performs in front of audiences Saturday at Irvine's Barclay Theatre.
At the heart of the production is director and choreographer Charles Maple, who conjures up an image of a master puppeteer, guiding teachers, dancers, set builders and costume designers.
Armed with extensive experience — he worked with George Balanchine, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins and other dance luminaries — Maple established the eponymous ballet school in Irvine nearly six years ago.
Drawn to the athleticism of ballet in his teens, Maple, 58, said that as a former football player, he spent a majority of the season on the bench because he was a fast runner who simply couldn't catch the ball.
He has choreographed more than 75 ballets and danced with the American Ballet Theatre, Houston Ballet, New York City Ballet, San Francisco Ballet and other companies.
"When you're starting from scratch, it affords you a tremendous opportunity to make something that can appeal to adults and children in the way we tell the story," said the Irvine resident. "Also it's very timely; 'Snow White and the Huntsman' just came out and so did 'Mirror, Mirror.'"
Maple poured over every song on 33 CDs to create the perfect musical accompaniment for the classical ballet, which he choreographed in less than 10 weeks.
He stepped into the studio during weekly rehearsals with a detailed knowledge of the music and story, and an idea, but never a prepared routine.
"When I choreograph, I show the dancers something and sometimes they'll make mistakes and the mistake is better than what I demonstrated to them," said Maple, who, on average, takes one hour to choreograph one minute. "It's better to let them help you because you get ideas from watching them, so it's a conversation between the dancers and the choreographer. I go in and play and see what happens. It's more fun that way."
Loving the challenge
Maple tapped Ali Willson, 16, of Corona del Mar, for the titular role. Captivated by the beauty of the dance form and "the emotions it stirs up," she said she cannot "get enough."
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version incorrectly identified the dancer of the title role as Alison Willson. Her name is Ali.
"Ballet is challenging, but I think that's an aspect of it that I really love," she said. "I like being challenged, and I feel like I need to prove myself so I fight harder and work harder to be the best I can be. Keeping good grades in school while having a strict dance schedule is difficult, but I am determined to do so. Maple is family so I don't know how I couldn't come back."
Having been a unicorn in "Cinderella," a flower in "Alice in Wonderland," a fairy in "Sleeping Beauty," as well as a snowflake, Clara, Snow Queen and lead Spanish in "The Nutcracker," Willson dreams of one day portraying Juliet in "Romeo and Juliet," Kitri in "Don Quixote" or any role in the "The Waltz Project."
The long-time fan of Maria Kochetkova and Tiler Peck is joined onstage by several close friends — clad as ravens, deer, rabbits and more — as well as Cinamin Stulik, 34, the macabre queen.
"I can go to a class and feel more relaxed and in-tune with who I am," Stulik said. "I'm a mom with two children, but this aspect of my life reminds me most of myself."
Stulik, who joked that her costume with its flowing sequined skirt and corset "needed a ballet of its own," shares the spotlight with her 7-year-old daughter Kate, a butterfly.
Despite being older than the other dancers — they range in age from 6 to 23 — Stulik teaches dance and conditioning classes while struggling with tendonitis in her ankles. Making the best use of her body "as it is," she is excited to seeing the group's efforts come to fruition.
At rehearsal, her minions used an oversized pair of scissors, comb and powder puff to apply make-up while she flounced around on a rolling chair. A few scenes later, when conservatory faculty member Steven Inskeep yelled, "I need to see some teeth, queen!" the Newport Beach resident admitted that being evil has been challenging.
"I've never been a villain before, so it's been hard to reflect that kind of negativity," Stulik said.
Both Stulik and Willson tip their hats to the support system at Maple, where parents take the lead. Mothers of current and past dancers create a behind-the-scenes "community," Maple said, and pitch in by selecting costume materials, stitching clothes and accessories — while keeping up a steady conversation — and providing refreshments. Fathers contribute by constructing and painting set pieces.
Eric Evans, 45, of Costa Mesa, whose 10-year-old daughter, Mandy, plays a dwarf, donated his woodworking skills to help create the dwarfs' home, beds and benches and the queen's giant mirror. He described the experience as a "concert" in which several hands played a part.
"I'd rather create sawdust from my tools than let them collect dust," he said. "Helping out makes me appreciate the amount of work that goes into these productions. When you're working backstage, you can make magic happen. From the audience's perspective, what we can do without a movie's special effects or big budget can really come together with surprises."
If You Go
What: Maple Youth Ballet's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs"
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Saturday
Cost: General admission is $30; seniors and children enter for $26
What: Snow White's Tea
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
When: After the 1:30 p.m. show or before the 6:30 p.m. show Saturday
Cost: $20 (performance tickets not included)