Most days, Emily Lovdahl and Peter Callaghan are 16-year-old high school students. When the local teens step out onto the stage at Park High School's theater this weekend, however, they will be transformed into two of the season's most beloved characters - Clara and the Nutcracker Prince.
Lovdahl and Callaghan are dancing the lead roles in this year's production of "The Story of the Nutcracker," a one-act ballet presented by Racine's Studio of Classical Dance Arts. And watching them rehearse at the studio's spacious new facility on Chicory Road earlier this week, it was evident that this ballet is something about which the two young dancers are passionate.
"For me, the ‘Nutcracker' is part of Christmas tradition," said Lovdahl, who attends The Prairie School. "I've been going to see different ‘Nutcracker' performances with my family since I was 4 or 5 years old - I love the story."
Describing the "Nutcracker" as a happy ballet that always puts him in the Christmas spirit, Callaghan said his role as the Prince is a lot of fun. "I get to dance the part of a really nice guy who falls in love with a beautiful girl," said the Case High School student. "It's great being able to act out the story and have fun with a character who cares for everyone and everything in his kingdom."
On and off stage
While both dancers truly enjoy being part of this annual production - which will be presented Saturday and Sunday - bringing "The Story of the Nutcracker" to the stage is also a lot of work. All of this year's cast of 85 students (as young as 6 years old and hailing from throughout Racine County, Kenosha and Franklin) have spent many hours learning and rehearsing their roles, in addition to taking regular dance technique classes.
Their teachers and directors, Marc Darling and Linda Bennett, also dedicate much of their time and energy - both in the studio and behind the scenes - to this production each year. As former professional ballet dancers with the Milwaukee Ballet, Darling and Bennett bring a wealth of production expertise to "The Story of the Nutcracker," making it more than a student recital. Real sets and costumes (160 this year) are featured, and students are schooled in what goes on backstage during a production, as well as on stage, Darling explained. "We use the same technical values we experienced as professional dancers," he said.
The couple, who opened the Studio for Classical Dance Arts in 2005, adds new elements to "The Story of the Nutcracker" each season. And, as the students grow and develop as dancers, they adjust the roles to fit them, Bennett said. "We are always looking a year or two ahead to the different possibilities for each of the dancers," she said. "That's one of the things that makes it fun and exciting."
She and Darling also hope to eventually add live music to the production, and offer performances of the ballet in area schools.
"We have great dreams for it," Darling said.
Making it real
The directors also hire local talent from outside their studio to help with "The Story of the Nutcracker" each year. A University of Wisconsin-Parkside student, for instance, operates the stage lights, and several Park High School students are stagehands for this year's performances. All of the assistants are paid for their work, because "That's something we feel quite strongly about," Darling said.
The couple also feels it is important to give their students the opportunity to perform in "The Story of the Nutcracker" free of charge.
"We want to keep it accessible to everybody," Bennett said.
In addition to teaching and rehearsing students, creating costumes and building sets, she and Darling transport the "tons" of equipment - from special dance flooring and light fixtures - to the theater each season. And every minute they spend preparing for the seasonal event is worth the end result, Bennett said.
"All I have to do is walk into the studio and see the students' faces and hear how excited they are," she said. "It's a wonderful thing as a teacher, to see your students so happy."
"I don't think there has been a year yet when we've gone to the theater and haven't found students waiting there for us," Darling said.
Callaghan and Lovdahl - who both plan to pursue careers as professional ballet dancers - say they look forward to "The Story of the Nutcracker" every year.
"Being on stage is so energizing," said Callaghan. "It takes away every single worry I have and I always feel at my best being out there."
Lovdahl - who through the years has also danced the roles of a maid, a mouse and a flower - described the experience of performing "The Story of the Nutcracker" as "amazing."
"It feels like it is real," she said.
If You Go
WHAT: "The Story of the Nutcracker," by the Studio of Classical Dance Arts
WHEN: 1:30 and 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10; and 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11
WHERE: Park High School Theater, 1901 12th St.
COST: Tickets are $10 for adults and $6 for children 12 and younger. They can be purchased at the Studio of Classical Dance Arts, 2745 Chicory Road, or at the door (subject to availability).
INFO: Call (262) 633-4450 or go to www.classicaldancearts.com