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posted: 11/20/2013 3:04 PM

Celebrating 10 years of 'Nutcracker' shows

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  • Elaborate set designs and costumes help to make State Street Dance Studio's production of "The Nutcracker" magical.

    Elaborate set designs and costumes help to make State Street Dance Studio's production of "The Nutcracker" magical.
    Courtesy of State Street Dance Studio

  • Geneva-based State Street Dance Studio has been performing "The Nutcracker" every holiday season for 10 years in a row.

      Geneva-based State Street Dance Studio has been performing "The Nutcracker" every holiday season for 10 years in a row.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer ¬

By Jamie L. Greco
Daily Herald correspondent

After 10 years of "Nutcracker" performances, Linda Cunningham, founder and artistic director of Geneva's State Street Dance Studio, knows what audiences want.

"I always stay true to the story, true to the score but splash it up with new elements, new sets, tricks," she said. "Our show is quick and colorful, exciting and fresh. My concept is, don't bore the audience."

Performances are set for 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 30, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 1, at the Batavia Fine Arts Centre.

In order to guide each year's production, Cunningham assigns a theme.

"This particular show is so different, my focus is 'spectacular,'" she said.

"Spectacular" can be a tough nut to crack, but the addition of eight professional ballet dancers from some of the world's premier companies is certainly a step in the right direction.

Performing in the production will be Abigail Simon and Mauro Villanueva, two recent principal dancers with the Joffrey Ballet; former Bolshoi Ballet students Jose de Silva of the Milwaukee Ballet and Raoni Xavier of Elements Contemporary Ballet; Gustavo Carvalho de Mendonça and Yasmin Lomondo Caetano dos Santos of Cia Brasileira de Ballet in Brazil; former Inaside Dance Chicago dancer and recent Broadway performer Michael Darnell; and Cuban natives Ariel Cisneros, a former Joffrey dancer; and Edson Caberara with Hedwig Dances.

The pivotal role of young Clara is dual cast and will be danced by 11-year-old Lily Karlson of Geneva at the 2 p.m. shows and 12-year-old Grace Ward of Batavia at the 7 p.m. show. Both dancers will also appear in the Snowflakes, Chinese and Russian dances.

Ward, who has only been classically training for a year, was surprised to learn she had been cast as Clara.

"I was almost suspicious that there was something that wasn't right," Ward said. "I was so overjoyed, I wanted to cry, but I was so overwhelmed, I couldn't."

"I'm really nervous," Ward added. "It's definitely not in the back of my mind, it's definitely my top priority in my life right now."

Karlson is equally excited.

"I am just ecstatic. I can't believe it. I love doing 'The Nutcracker,' " said Karlson, who will be Clara for the first time. "I'm ready to do this and I'm so excited."

Although both Claras are students at State Street Dance Studio, "The Nutcracker" is not a school recital.

"You have to audition; we have open auditions," Cunningham said, adding that performers need not be students at the studio.

Other dancers playing lead roles include Sarah Atac of Batavia; Susan D'Onofrio, Olivia Smith, Isabelle Urben of Geneva; Alexis Gravenites, Sara Strahl, Grace Taylor of St. Charles; and Mariel Weber of South Elgin.

In an unusual casting decision, Geneva Mayor Kevin Burns will play Mother Ginger in the Dec. 1 performance. The character appears as a woman with a very large skirt from which many children exit onto the stage.

According to Burns, his friendship with Cunningham won him the part.

"She contacted me and asked me if I'd be interested and I said, of course! Any time I get to dress in full regalia and be around talented people, I'm honored to do so," Burns said. "It's a holiday celebration and it would be a great idea for me to step out, if you will."

Although Burns is taking some expected ribbing, he is looking forward to the experience.

"This is not being done under duress," he said with a laugh.

In conjunction with the event, a behind-the-scenes tour/meet-and-greet and a Sugar Plum Fairy Tea are planned.

The behind-the-scenes tour, which includes a photo with the Sugar Plum Fairy, will take place after the Nov. 30 matinee performance on the set of the ballet. The tea takes place from 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at Riverside Receptions and Conference Center in Geneva.

Aside from creating a magical experience for the audience, Cunningham hopes to create a memory for her cast that will last far beyond the closing applause.

"I told them, I want you to think, 20 years from now, where will you be and you'll look back at this moment in time and say, I did that and it was real and it was magical and it was spectacular," Cunningham said.

Former Geneva Alderman Sam Hill, who is also participating in the performance said, "In 22 years from now, I'll be 100, and I will watch (a recording of this show) and I will smile."

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