35 years of sugar plums and toy soldiers

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By Michelle Dybal

Contributing Reporter

Some 120 dancers prepare each year to perform in The Nutcracker, being staged for its 35th year. Produced by Ballet Légere, they are choreographed by dance professionals and costumed in outfits fit for an evil Mouse King or a Sugar Plum Fairy, ruler of the Kingdom of Sweets. 

But it is the army of volunteers that makes the whole thing work. From makeup artists to security, to moms helping with quick changes, it is simply what is required to make the Tchaikovsky ballet come to life on the Dominican University stage.

"We couldn't exist without the volunteers," said Artistic Director Donna Vittorio. "If we had to pay all the people to do what they do, we wouldn't be able to function." Fifty volunteers make it happen.

Ballet Legere is a nonprofit organization. Vittorio, who is also a choreographer and a producer of The Nutcracker, started the show when she saw a regional ballet company put on the production. Trained in ballet, musical theater and opera, Vittorio teamed with a friend (who is no longer involved) and they launched their own production.

The annual event combines area dance students with a small number of professional dancers — seven this year. Among the professionals are Cincinnati Ballet artists Marcus Romeo and Bella Ureta. Many of the young 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.

"I've learned what it's like to be in a professional production," said Gianna Bibbey, Oak Park and River Forest High School senior, who is dancing in The Nutcracker for the eighth time. "It's taught me what I love about dance and why I want to keep this in my life."

"Having the parent volunteers takes the stress off the older dancers by helping us with quick changes, makeup changes, and making sure everything is set where we need it to be," she said, which is crucial for dancers like Gianna who plays four roles.

Anne Cheronis of River Forest assists her three daughters in and out of costumes during the show. Madeleine, a sixth grader at Roosevelt Middle School, dances three parts. Fifth grader Lolo, also at Roosevelt, and third grader Mary, who attends Willard Elementary, are also part of the ensemble.

"Every year you get a different role and meet new people and make new friends," Mary said. "If you're an understudy, you learn more dances, too." This is Mary's second year dancing in the ballet. She is a toy soldier and an angel understudy.

Makeup is another important volunteer job. Four moms hold down this role, some even after their dancing daughters have moved on.

"It's this incredible group of people who have this vision and want to work very hard to make this show wonderful," Vittorio said. "They miss it when their children go off to school."

Program Coordinator Rita Louis went from volunteer parent in 1989 to employee who puts in extra time for props. Her daughter, once a young dancer, is now a choreographer.

"It's the kids that really keep me coming back," Louis said. "They are so excited. Their attitudes are great."

As for the show itself, she added, "I've seen other Nutcrackers. To me, our show is the best because of the interactions between characters and the personal touches Donna has added." There are even some comic scenes to entertain the audience, Louis explained. "We want them to laugh and also go 'ooh'."

"They love it," said Vittorio of the volunteers. "They love being part of a production; they all know each other and are friendly; they work hard but have a good time."

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

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