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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Dance Company’s ‘Nutcracker’ reaches 35 years

Artistic director Shirley Van developed her own version.

PHOTO: Shirley Van is artistic director of The Dance Company, a Green Bay area troupe that is putting on its 35th annual “Nutcracker” ballet Nov. 29-Dec. 1 at St. Norbert College in De Pere. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis., (WFRV) – In a day an age when a personal computer doesn’t last 10 years, something that lasts 35 years old is a feat. This week, The Dance Company of Shirley Van marks its 35th year of presenting the classic “Nutcracker” ballet.

Four performances will be held in Walter Theatre of St. Norbert College in De Pere. Info: tickets.snc.edu.

Van has been artistic director of The Dance Company from the start. The troupe puts on other productions during a season, but the “Nutcracker” is its go-to extravaganza year after year. The “Nutcracker” is of large scale in its scope on stage and in the number of bodies moving in and out of scenes. The panorama may surprise first-timers to a performance. Perhaps also surprising – for a ballet – is the use of words.

Van says the general public is not familiar with the “Nutcracker” story, so narration is added in a few places and some characters speak a bit.

The narration is by Mike Palubicki, who also performs the part of the magical Uncle.

Palubicki says, “We have a little bit of a story, trying to tell the audience what’s going to happen – put a little magic in. It’s not very long. It just happens in two parts. But just to let the audience know what’s coming next and what to watch for and try to tease them with the idea of magic and the fact that Clara is very anxious to grow up and find her dream. And that’s what we’re trying to give her, and that’s what the uncle is trying to give her as a gift through the magic of the whole show.”

This is a storyline Van has developed over time.

Company member Carrie Wielgus says the concept sets The Dance Company’s “Nutcracker” apart.

Wielgus says, “Some ‘Nutcrackers’ are just, you get out there, you do the dance and that’s pretty much it. And then you see like the Sugar Plum Dance, and then they bow. Ours has a storyline, and I think it’s more about the story of her uncle who gives her the nutcracker.”

Wielgus and Palubicki have been associated with Van’s dance studio for 42 and 39 years, respectively. They have danced key roles – Young Clara and Clara for Wielgus, the Nutcracker and the Uncle for Palubicki – and they assist in preparations in important capacities.

“Shirley has been wonderful,” Wielgus says.

Palubicki echoes that sentiment, adding, “She’s very creative. She knows more than all of us combined as a group. So we take her ideas, and we try and make them happen.”

Each year, Van comes up with something a bit different for the “Nutcracker.”

Van says, “We add and change a few things, go to more community things. It isn’t as stiff. We play a little bit more with characters. I like playing with characters. It brings a more wholesome, not as stiff, performance. And we all have our fun.”

The ballet dates to 1892 Russia. It’s popular at this time of year, and it is put on by many companies in many ways. Van zones in on a family feel, which means a lot of young people.

Van says, “I love working with kids. I’ve worked with kids my whole life. Really young ones, they giggle and they laugh, ‘It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas.’ I like that. I like that part of it. And then from the time they go to St. Norbert (for performances) until they leave St. Norbert, they grow up. They learn the discipline of the theater. They’re not yelled at. They’re with everybody else. We sit and eat all together. They’re part of the family, and that’s what we try and make happen.”

Wielgus says, “My mom used to say ‘Nutcracker’ is a love and hate relationship. It’s hard sometimes because it’s so much work. But you love it. Everybody looks forward to seeing it every year. The dancers, the family, the parents – we’re all one, and Shirley has brought all of these people together. Some of the adult dancers come back and dance in different parts, and it’s really neat to see them come back and do that. And Shirley’s created all of that.”

Wielgus has been in every ‘Nutcracker’ but one.

Palubicki is similarly hooked. He says, “This whole thing – it’s all about the people you work with. I don’t care if it’s the 35th or the third one. Each group is different, and you get to know them and to work with them. The parents are different every year. They don’t keep coming back (forever). You forget that all those kids have gone away, and now you have a whole new group… But they’re great. The parents are great. They support their kids.”

Working within the Van concept, Palubicki says “Nutcracker” concerns acting, movement and staging along with dancing and choreography… “so it comes off to the audience as a play rather than just 23 dances in a row. It’s all got to blend together.”

Van says, “We have little nuances – like good things that happen in the house, or sometimes a cute expression. I think that’s why some of the audiences come back to it. I’m sitting in the back and I hear people say, ‘This is the tenth time I’ve seen this.’ That means it brought Christmas home to them. And that’s what we try and do. And it’s Christmas for us.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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