A host of 28 dancers from Oak Park and River Forest are making magic now during the 20th anniversary run of Ballet Legere's production of The Nutcracker. They join 130 dancers and a 23-member orchestra hailing from Chicago, its surrounding suburbs and northwest Indiana.
Each August, Legere holds open auditions for The Nutcracker, which for the past eight years has been held at Morton East High School's Chodl Auditorium in Cicero. Previously, the group performed at Dominican University in River Forest.
"We couldn't get our contract anymore. [Dominican] started doing [its] own performances," said Ballet Legere's artistic director and part owner Donna Vittorio. A friend told her to check out the auditorium space at the high school, and Vittorio liked what she found.
"It's the best kept secret in Cicero," she said.
Since late August, the cast has been busy with weekend rehearsals that floated between the River Forest Women's Club and the Legere Dance Center off of Harlem and North avenues in River Forest. Ballet Legere's office is located in Chicago.
Legere's production of The Nutcracker includes professional dancers (this year Elizabeth Mertz and Daniel Keene from the American Ballet Theatre of New York City are featured), seasoned veterans with Legere and a few first-timers.
Clare Curran, a 5-year-old from River Forest playing the cherub, is the youngest dancer in Legere's show. She's been dancing with the Academy of Movement and Music in Oak Park since age 2. Her mom Eileen said she doesn't know how Clare got interested in ballet, just that Clare was never interested in other sports, like soccer.
This is Clare's first time as a dancer in The Nutcracker. She knows the story, though, because her mom has taken her to see the ballet several times. Eileen has been a patron of Legere's production for more than 10 years, since her nieces, now in high school, were just five years old. Clare has tagged along on the traditional excursion for the last few years.
"I don't want to slam the Joffrey [Ballet of Chicago], but I took my nieces to the Joffrey as a splurge and they hated it," Eileen said as a measure of comparison for Legere's production. "[This production is] just as good."
Eileen said Clare's dancing experience in the production has been positive. While most practices were a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays, some lasted up to eight hours.
"It's a lot of work," noted Eileen. "I have a stronger appreciation for the work involved, especially in terms of putting it together." She said that after the eight hour practices, Clare will come home a little wound up, tired and hungry.
"At home, she really needs sleep and food," Eileen added.
Clare has had the opportunity to perform in front of crowds during the Academy's spring performances each year, so she's familiar with being on stage. "In front of small groups, she gets nervous," her mom explained. "But I don't think she realizes what she's actually doing. We don't make a big deal out about it."
Amy McDowell, a five-year resident of Oak Park, makes her Ballet Legere debut as the Nutcracker. Ballet was McDowell's career until she was about 25 years old, and she continues to take classes as a form of exercise.
While McDowell is new to Legere's version of The Nutcracker, she has plenty of experience with the ballet. She said her favorite character is Clara, a role she performed as a child.
"It's the main child's role," she explained. "It's fun to portray emotions. You're not just dancing, but playing a character. You're kind of the star."
McDowell didn't participate in the August auditions. She came on board four or five weeks ago when the production lost the cast member who played the Nutcracker in previous years.
It wasn't that difficult to get up to speed, even late in the rehearsal schedule, because the company is so well organized, noted McDowell.
"The children all seem to know what to do. It makes it easy to pick it up. In other productions it's difficult to do with so many kids' roles," she said, adding that each production of The Nutcracker is done with different choreography.
"It's not like a scripted play. The choreographer will make the choreography fit the dancers," she said.
Ballet Legere's production of The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 19 at the Chodl Auditorium, 2423 S. Austin Ave., in Cicero. Performances are Thursday (10 a.m.), Friday (10 a.m.), Saturday (2 p.m. and 7 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.). Tickets range from $6.50 to $22 with special rates available for groups, seniors and student field trips. For more information or to purchase tickets call (773) 237-1874 or e-mail Ballet Legere at BALLETLEGERE@yahoo.com.