Visions of sugarplums — or, at least, a Sugarplum Fairy — were already dancing in Marc Darling’s and Linda Bennett’s heads last summer. That’s when the directors of The Studio of Classical Dance Arts were busy creating a new Land of the Sweets backdrop for their annual production of “The Story of the Nutcracker,” which runs this weekend in the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s Main Stage Theater.
Measuring 45-by-25 feet, the beautifully hand-painted, scenic backdrop looks as if one could walk right into its magical land. Darling and retired UW-Parkside theater professor Skelly Warren spent weeks carefully designing and painting the heavy cloth. And when set behind the dancers on stage, it will be the latest addition to the Studio’s “Nutcracker” production, which is in its ninth year.
Each season, Bennett and Darling — who both danced professionally with the Milwaukee Ballet before opening their studio here — bring something new to their version of the classic holiday ballet, while also training its cast of more than 80 young dancers.
In 2013, for example, they created a 20-foot “growing” Christmas tree with 600 lights for the show. The directors are also constantly building on and tweaking everything from the ballet’s choreography to its props, and they enjoy being able to share such experiences with their students, ranging in age from 6 to 19.
“Every year we learn to do something new, and we share that with the kids as we learn about it,” Bennett said.
Producing live theater is a fun and interesting process, Bennett said, and she and Darling feel it is important for students to not only learn dance technique, but about theater history, backstage production and more.
“The story remains the same, but the production continues to grow,” Darling said. “It’s fun to see the kids get excited about it every year.”
Being in “The Story of the Nutcracker” also gives students an opportunity to work with other professional dancers through its guest artists. This weekend, two members of Philadelphia’s BalletX company — Skyler Lubin and Richard Villaverde — will come to Wisconsin to dance the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier in the Studio’s production (see accompanying box for profiles).
Audiences here may remember Villaverde from his time on stage in last year’s “The Story of the Nutcracker.” Lubin will be dancing with students here for the first time. This is the third year professionals have performed in the Studio’s production.
“It is such a great experience for the kids to see these professionals up close and personal, and to see how they work,” Bennett said. “All of our guest artists have been so wonderful with the kids.”
She and Darling are also excited to know that while they bring “The Story of the Nutcracker” to the stage here for another year, several former students will be dancing in other “Nutcracker” productions around the country.
Recent Studio graduate Emily Lovdahl is in the Milwaukee Ballet’s “The Nutcracker,” as a member of the Milwaukee Ballet II, and others are dancing in “Nutcracker” productions while training with the Ballet Chicago School, the Ruth Page School of Dance in Chicago, and the Joffrey Ballet School in New York.