'Tis the season for holiday traditions. One of my childhood favorites was an outing to the annual production of "The Nutcracker." Back then we had to drive into Chicago with our binoculars, as we could only afford the "nosebleed seats" in the back of the auditorium.
Times have changed for the better, as there are several suburban venues offering "Nutcracker" performances, but only one in the Tri-Cities, presented by State Street Dance Studio of Geneva.
If you goWhat: State Street Dance Studio's production of "The Nutcracker."
When: 1 and 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16.
Where: Batavia Fine Arts Centre, 1201 Main St., Batavia.
Tickets: $28 for adults, $23 for children ages 10 and younger.
Info: Tickets can be purchased online through bataviafineartscentre.org, or statestreetdancestudio.com. Call (630) 232-0444.
This is the studio's ninth annual "Nutcracker" production, and will be held for the first time at the Batavia Fine Arts Centre; which offers a variety of special staging tricks for this production. Performances are Dec. 15 and 16.
"Every year I have a focus, and this year's is 'Enchanted,'" said Linda Cunningham, founder and artistic director of State Street Dance.
A quick synopsis, as you're probably all well-acquainted with this famous ballet: 'The Nutcracker' is a two-act ballet, accompanied by a score of very familiar music composed by Tchaikovsky.
Typically performed in the winter, the story begins on Christmas Eve. Two children, Clara and Fritz, are enjoying the family's festivities, when their godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, appears with a special gift: a wooden nutcracker in the shape of a man.
The magic really kicks in and brings to life not only the nutcracker, but gingerbread soldiers, tin soldiers, dolls, mice and the giant Mouse King, and even beautiful dancing snowflakes, just in the first act. The second act brings the Sugar Plum Fairy, and a variety of amazing dances and dancers, representing several different countries, who all dance in honor of Clara.
In State Street Dance's production, the role of Clara is double-cast between two dancers, Kate Sieber and Julia Blahnik, for the first time this year.
"This is going to be at a new theater, so it's a new experience for all of us. Linda adds new tricks every year, so we're all looking forward to what she'll do," said Sieber of Geneva.
Sieber started dancing at age 3, but joined State Street when she was 8 years old. She dances about 12 hours a week, plus an additional six hours every Sunday for "Nutcracker" rehearsals.
Having danced many of the other Nutcracker roles in the past: in the Arabian dance, as the Russian lead and more, Sieber is finding new challenges in the role of Clara.
"Mostly maintaining the character is challenging," she said. "She is so dynamic and has so many emotions through the entire show. Maintaining my stamina through the first act is challenging, as it's nonstop dancing. By the time it's over, I'm drenched in sweat."
Sieber will dance as Clara in the Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon performances. Julia Blahnik will dance as Clara in the Saturday matinee.
"This is my first year as a larger part. This is a step up," said Julia, a sixth-grader at Rotolo Middle School in Batavia, who loves performing. Like her counterpart, Blahnik started dancing when she was 3 years old, and then joined State Street at the age of 7.
"This is my fifth year in 'The Nutcracker.' For Clara, there are many more rehearsals. I'm looking forward to the tech rehearsals, which make it seem real, but no one is sitting out in the audience," she said.
During the technical rehearsals, the cast also finds out what surprises Cunningham has up her sleeve for this year's production.
"She'll say, 'Oh, by the way, this is going to happen, but don't tell anyone,'" said Blahnik.
Over half of the 100-member cast is made up of State Street Dance Studio students, who all auditioned and were cast in roles Cunningham felt best suited them.
"I started at State Street, and have danced all nine years in 'The Nutcracker,'" said Marissa Wilkins, a Geneva resident and high school senior. "I am looking forward to finishing off this 'Nutcracker' in my senior year, hanging out with the crew, and all the magic Linda puts into the show."
Possibly the most challenging piece for these serious dancers is the hours put into rehearsals for this production, on top of the many hours they spend in dance classes, each week, especially when they appear in several roles, as does Wilkins, as the Arabian Queen, the Russian female lead, and a lead flower.
"I started dancing when I was 2," said Geneva High School freshman Isabelle Urben, who will dance the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and also as the Arabian Queen. "I've been at State Street since I was 4 -- pretty much my whole life. I've been in ('The Nutcracker') all the years they've performed it."
"Performing for me is always a lot of fun. I usually get a little nervous before I go on, but when I'm dancing, it's great," she said. "And 'The Nutcracker' is different each time. I really enjoy it."
Previously, State Street's "Nutcracker" has been held at the Norris Cultural Arts Center in St. Charles.
"I wanted something new and fresh, this year. The Batavia theater has interesting things to play with: trap doors on the stage, interesting bells and whistles. Makes it very interesting for me to work with. We're using the hydraulic lift on the presidium at the beginning," said Cunningham, who also hinted at other surprises certain to delight the audience. "People in the community are excited about the new venue, too. Our show is very colorful, and moves at a clip. It's very family-friendly, jubilant, and very visually captivating."
Peppered among the State Street dancers will be a selection of professional dancers.
"It's really an honor to have these dancers," said Cunningham. "State Street is a technically driven school, and it's so important for students to dance with these professionals."
Michael Darnell of Chicago is a freelance professional dancer who will perform all three shows as Herr Drosselmeyer, and also as one of the lead Chinese dancers.
With a degree in dance from the University of Arizona School of Dance, Darnell moved to Chicago and was a company member of Inaside Chicago Dance for three years.
Earlier this year he performed in A Chorus Line at the Paramount in Aurora. He has also performed with State Street's "Nutcracker" since Cunningham first put on this holiday production.
"I'm looking forward to this. We're in a different venue, and (Cunningham) always has some amazing tricks up her sleeve," Darnell said. "All of her students are amazing and accepted me as one of the family. It's an amazing, beautiful performance. People of all ages will enjoy it."
Each year the cast grows, with members from State Street Dance Studio, people from the general community -- some of whom have never danced -- along with professional dancers.
"I love to cast different talents," Cunningham said. "Some adults have no dance experience, such as the woman who plays the grandma in the show, and her performance is outstanding."
The age range of the performers starts at 5 years old and goes all the way to 70 or 80 years old, which adds to the family-friendly feeling of this production.
One unique cast member came to Cunningham's attention via a phone call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. A request was made of Cunningham about Ailine Solis from Elgin, who has brittle bone disease and heart problems.
"I got a call from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, saying they have a girl in a wheelchair. When I got the call, I didn't hesitate, and said it would be my honor and privilege. We all feel freely blessed to have her (in 'The Nutcracker')," she said.
This year's cast even includes the dancer Jessi from the television show Dance Mom's Miami. She will appear in the Silk Artists piece -- the preamble to the Arabian dance.
Auditions were also added this year, for people of other talents: poets, musicians, singers and more (not dancers), who will perform in the preshow before each of the "Nutcracker" shows. A sing-a-long will also be a lively part of the preshow. Be sure to get to the theater at least a half an hour early to enjoy this interactive musical experience.
Another bonus for the audience: Cunningham includes an "Oprah-esque" surprise at each show: one lucky random audience member will receive a very special surprise gift!
You can see a preview of this talented group of dancers between 11 a.m. and noon Dec. 13, when Cunningham will bring a group to dance at and be televised live from the WLS TV -- Channel 7 studio in Chicago.
This year's shows are offered at earlier times than in the past, with two matinees, and one early evening performance, to appeal to audience members of any age.
Performance dates and times are 1 and 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16.
Tickets are $28 for adults, and $23 for children ages 10 and younger. Tickets can be purchased online directly through the Batavia Fine Arts Centre: bataviafineartscentre.org, or from State Street Dance Studio: statestreetdancestudio.com, or call (630) 232-0444. Special rates are available for large groups.