‘Nutcracker’ fun for young supporting dancers

12/15/2012 7:10 AM

12/15/2012 8:56 AM

While the first act of “The Nutcracker” was under way on stage, a couple of mice decided to work on their dying off stage.

They were to be shot by soldiers and a cannon in the next act, requiring them to fall dramatically on their backsides and be dragged off the stage.

They loved it.

Down they went, then up they popped, smiling and panting.

As they rehearsed their demise, all was controlled chaos around them in the practice room at Friends University. Kids dressed as mice, cookies and candy canes leapt and cavorted and mugged with each other in mirrors.

“It’s really fun, hanging out with your friends and eating and playing in here,” said one of the mice, Cassie Garcia, 9.

Other “Nutcracker” mice — Riley Maugans, 10; Lauren Hoy, 9; Danielle Duncan, 9; RuthAnne Dunn, 10; Jaden Kordonowy, 8; and Elyce Pfeifer, 9 — gathered around to explain their roles in “The Nutcracker,” the timeless Christmas classic.

They must dance — and die — in character, they explained. And even though the costumes are hot, they said, it is fun.

Dancing for one of the mice even is therapeutic.

“It helps out when I get mad,” she said. “I just dance and feel calm.”

Two different dance groups are staging “The Nutcracker” in Wichita this weekend. The Friends production, which included three performances last weekend and one on Friday, concludes with performances Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. All performances are in the Riney Fine Arts Center’s Sebits Auditorium at Friends. Tickets are sold out.

The shows will include featured artists Wendy Whelan, a principal dancer with the New York City ballet, and her partner, Chase Finley. All other dancers are students at Friends, and kids from the community.

Ballet Wichita, a nonprofit arts company of nearly 100 dancers, will stage “The Nutcracker” at Century II on Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Performances will include a full symphony orchestra and guest artists from across the country.

“The Nutcracker” offers a magical dream world of dancing cookies and candy, mice and soldiers, sugar plum fairies and princes, and a giant figure known as Mother Ginger.

“It is a holiday kind of ballet,” said Stan Rogers, associate professor of dance at Friends, who directs and choreographs the 80-member production. “It is about family and friends that get together. It takes place on Christmas Eve. The musical score by Tchaikovsky, you hear it constantly on TV commercials and the radio. So it’s kind of synonymous with Christmas.”

Rogers has staged “The Nutcracker” for 20 years and doesn’t tire of it.

“All of the kids have such a good time, even though it’s kind of hard on them and their families to be here all this time. They’re budding young ballerinas,” he said.

Rehearsals started in mid-October.

“It’s kind of fun to work with kids. It doesn’t get exasperating because they have so much energy. Sometimes it’s like herding cats, but most of the time they’re in good control.”

Tressie Maugans, Riley’s mother, has helped put Mother Ginger together for three years. Putting on the outfit and makeup takes 45 minutes, and when complete, transforms Jonathan Nygaard, a junior chemistry major at Friends, into a 9-foot-tall female in a giant wig and a vast dress that conceals 10 children who emerge from it on stage and dance as ginger cookies.

“It’s really hard work. It’s heavy lifting,” Maugans said.

Nygaard said he had never seen “The Nutcracker” and knew nothing about Mother Ginger when approached about the role.

“I didn’t know what I was signing up for, honestly,” he said.

But he enjoys it, enjoys the kids, and has gradually become more comfortable inside the outfit, which weighs about 50 pounds.

The role is a highlight of the production. Nygaard, on stilts, must walk around the stage a few times with all the “ginger cookies” hiding under the dress. He gets to wave to the audience as the only character in the production who interacts with it.

The audience is very responsive, Nygaard said, especially when the “ginger cookies” appear from beneath the dress.

“I didn’t know how large this role was, so I consider it a privilege, really,” he said.

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