Under the glittering chandeliers of the Genesee Theatre, children squeal with delight as a giant Chinese dragon with flashing red eyes peeks from around the curtain. A life-size gingerbread house bursts with tiny clowns, who skip around the stage blowing kisses and turning cartwheels. From their pink settee, Clara and her Prince watch the Kingdom of the Sweets unfold around them. It’s all part of Dancenter North’s The Magic of the Nutcracker, December 4–5 at Libertyville High School’s Butler Auditorium and continuing December 10–12 at the Genesee Theatre in Waukegan, Illinois.
Now celebrating its 22nd year, the production serves as northeastern Illinois’ longest running Nutcracker. “At the time we started, there was only one big Nutcracker in Chicago,” says Cheri Lindell, Dancenter North’s founder and director. “Everybody thought it would be a great idea to have something for the suburban community, so I decided to do one show. We immediately sold out.” What began as one weekend at the local high school expanded to two weekends and two locations.
The show is open to Dancenter North’s 1,000 students. By mid-September, casting is determined, and rehearsals are scheduled after technique classes on weekends. The production includes 70 students, 12 professional dancers, local gymnasts and adult volunteers. Lindell says the show’s revenue covers its cost, and she notes, more importantly, that it serves as a vital learning experience. “It’s been a stepping stone for many of our students who want to go on to a professional life,” she says. “It gives them an opportunity to explore the whole process.” Students who have gone on to dance careers include James Kopecky, who danced the Nutcracker Prince as a teen and recently landed an apprenticeship with Ballet San Jose, and Kathleen Martin, who danced the Snow Queen and is now with Ballet West II.
Lindell feels fortunate to have a regular group of professional dancers come in each year, including Jon Lehrer, artistic director of LehrerDance, as the Mouse King. “It’s fun to see how the kids get so excited when the pros come in last-minute,” she says. “After rehearsing for weeks and weeks, it’s like boom, another shot of adrenaline in the arm.”
Prior to acceptance into the cast, students and parents sign contracts of commitment, which outline expectations ranging from attendance to fees and parent volunteers behind the scenes. To stay within budget (which ranges from $150,000 to $170,000), the school created its BRAVO parent organization. “We have parents organize costumes, help with the props, help build sets, organize food for the dancers, put up posters, sell advertising—there are a million different ways to help,” says Lindell, who produces the show without outside funding or support.
The Magic of the Nutcracker sells 6,000 to 8,000 tickets each year. To lure audience members back, Lindell says: “We try to do something different every year, whether it’s new costumes, sets or new choreography.” She beams with pride over the production’s success. “Audience members say it’s extremely colorful,” she says. “They enjoy it from beginning to end, which is ultimately our goal.”
For more: www.dancenter-north.com
Amy Brandt dances with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and is a columnist for Pointe Magazine. She’s performed as a guest artist with Dancenter North.
Photo: Dancenter North students in the Mother Ginger scene. (by Norm Kidder, courtesy of Dancenter North)