Ballet Legere's Nutcracker

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

The holidays focus on family, and one local holiday dance tradition is like a family: Ballet Légere's Nutcracker. Scores of children have grown up with the production and audition each year. Some even come back as adults, including one who danced in her youth and is now a choreographer. Parents take part in the ballet's party scene and put in many volunteer hours. 

Then there is the woman behind it all, Donna Vittorio, a choreographer for The Nutcracker and the show's producer and artistic director.

"I saw a small regional ballet company do The Nutcracker," said Vittoria, who is professionally trained in ballet, musical theater and opera. "I thought, 'I know I can do this,' and so a friend who was also a dancer and choreographer (no longer involved) and I got it started. It was a lot of research — where do you get backdrops, what do we do with costuming — and we just enjoyed it immensely."

In its 34th season, this traditional version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker has grown since it was first staged. According to Vittorio, the crew has doubled and more people are involved, including seamstresses and choreographers, which makes for "a smoother run." Roles were added to give more opportunities to young dancers and the level of technique of the dancers is better, she said.

Adult professional dancers have been hired from Chicago companies to play roles such as Drosselmeyer, and guest artists from the Cincinnati Ballet are playing the Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy this season to dance the Grand Pas de Deux.

"It's wonderful for the kids who are very serious about dance, to dance alongside these professionals," Vittorio said.

From snow to fog to a booming cannon, Vittorio said the production is "quite visual." The costumes that have become more beautiful over the years, she adds.

Donning those costumes are approximately 120 dancers from dance studios across the Chicago area, ranging from a 4½-year-old gift-bearer to teens who dance as Dew Flowers, Lead Angels, Beauty Rose, and in the Chinese, Russian and Spanish dances. Early on, professional dancers took on roles that are currently filled by teens because they're now good enough, according to Vittorio. Only eight adult professionals are part of the case today. 

Fifty-two of the dancers are students of Légere Dance Center in River Forest, owned by Vittorio. The North Avenue studio serves as rehearsal space for The Nutcracker and for dance classes in contemporary, jazz, tap, ballet and pointe for ages 3 through high school.

Four high school seniors are in The Nutcracker who have been with the show and Légere Dance since they were 7 or 8: Elyse Hroma, Megan Hosp, Sarah Danganan and Iris Park. Both Danganan and Park are from Oak Park. Park can be seen in Trepak (Russian dance) and does the Spanish dance solo.

Students are welcome at another level — as audience members. Weekday performances have been reserved for field trips since the beginning. A Q&A with performers follows the show.

"We've had countless letters saying, 'We'd never thought we'd like a ballet,' 'We never knew what a ballet was like,'" Vittorio said. "They are being educated in the art of ballet."

Weekend shows are open to the public and a tour is offered after the Saturday matinee. Besides seeing the fog and snow machines, mouse heads up close, and other items of interest backstage, some performers remain on stage after the performance for an up-close view.

Building close relationships is an important aspect behind the scenes.

"To see the [dancers] and the relationships they build," Vittorio said. "They remain friends throughout the year, even the people who live a distance. And the parents that get involved become friends. Many of the parents work with the show when their kids continue on. ... It's tremendous."

See Ballet Légere's "Nutcracker," Saturday, Dec. 8 at 2 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 9 at 2 p.m., Lund Auditorium, Dominican University. $34, premium seating; $29 premium children/senior or general seating; $24 children/seniors general seating. $7, backstage tour after the Saturday 2 p.m. show. Tickets: balletlegere.org/tickets, 708-488-5000. 7900 W. Division St.,
River Forest.

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