In preparing for the annual student program at her ballet school, artistic director Lois Ellyn rejected the easy way out.
Previously, she had brought in professional dancers to help carry the programs; this time she decided to rely solely on her students.
"Most regional ballet schools just throw together a bad production of something like 'Swan Lake' and bring in two guest professionals," Ellyn said recently at her Fullerton school.
"The kids are dressed as cranberries and put in the back. Well, that's not creative enough for me."
So Ellyn, who has taught locally for more than 15 years, created two new works, "A Prisoner in Fairyland" and "Colors," for her students, who range in age from 9 to 26. About 60 of her more than 100 students will perform the works at 8 p.m. Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Fullerton College Campus Theater.
(Also on the program will be variations from "The Sleeping Beauty," set to Tchaikovsky's familiar score, and selections from Ellyn's earlier ballet, "The Tale of the Little Gray Horse," to music by Shostakovich.)
In "Prisoner," Ellyn decided to group several fairy tale heroines together instead of concentrating on one figure, as many traditional ballets do.
"That way there would be so many more things I could create for students which would be in their range," she said.
Her work features five different soloists in the roles of storybook heroines Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The characters are brought together through the device of opening the ballet with a Victorian-era girl falling asleep over a book of fairy tales.
"The girl dreams that the characters in the book are caught in a net of stars hung between two cedar trees," Ellyn explained.
As the 25-minute ballet unfolds, other storybook figures also appear, including Beauty and the Beast, the Twelve Dancing Princesses ("who danced so much that their shoes wore out," Ellyn said) and a corps of sprites.
At the end, the characters are again caught in the net and the little girl wakes up.
But she will never forget her dream, Ellyn said.
"The main theme of the ballet is that we never lose these friends that we had in childhood. We capture them forever."
Ellyn's other new work, "Colors," has no major theme. It is a plotless, or abstract, ballet "built on the mixing of colors."
In the work, three principal dancers are costumed in the primary colors of red, blue and yellow; after they perform, they briefly stay on stage in the proper combinations to create the color of the next dancer's costume.
"Yellow and blue, for instance, make green," Ellyn explained, "and so the girl dressed in green comes out after the yellow and blue dancers.
"I know it sounds corny," the choreographer said.
To cover the cost of these costumes--there are more than 17-- as well as advertising, set and theater rental costs, Ellyn has budgeted $3,000.
"It would be nice if we brought in enough to cover these expenses," she said. "But I don't expect to make anything."
In choreographing these dances, Ellyn also rejected using music by Tchaikovsky and Chopin, the traditional choices for ballets: "Prisoner" is set to Bohuslav Martinu's "Spalicek," a series of short, descriptive settings of Czech nursery rhymes and folk songs, and "Colors" uses Britten's "Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge," which includes dance forms such as the waltz and the tarantella.
Ellyn's influences as a teacher and choreographer stem from her work with such figures as Nijinska (sister of famed Russian dancer Vaslav Nijinksy), ballerina Mia Slavenska and George Balanchine, she said.
Born in Anaheim, Ellyn (who declined to give her age) originally planned to become a concert pianist but got too nervous playing concerts in public. Dancing, however, "never made her nervous," she said.
Ellyn became a student of Slavenska in the 1950s and later studied two years with Nijinska when the Russian choreographer was associated with the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet, a company formed by some of the dancers in the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo after its breakup.
Ellyn also spent two seasons dancing with Balanchine's New York City Ballet but left to tour with the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet Company.
It was with Slavenska that she created the role of Stella in Valerie Bettis' 1962 ballet "A Streetcar Named Desire," considered an early milestone in the attempt to mix ballet and modern dance.
After that company folded because of financial problems, Ellyn began to think about the future.
"Luckily I drifted into teaching," she said. "I love creating ballets and making them appealing, especially to young audiences who have never seen a ballet.
"The challenge in choreographing for young dancers is to create things that they can handle without sacrificing musicality--and that still can be satisfying."