A high-caliber show

MARSHALL – There’s a saying that owner Charlotte Wendel teaches to her students at the Southwest School of Dance in Marshall.

“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish,” she said.

The concept also applies to the process involved in the 2013 Prairie Dance Alliance of Southwestern Minnesota ballet production of “The Nutcracker,” Wendel said Wednesday at the second-to-last rehearsal for the upcoming performance.

“I think this may end up being one of our best performances ever,” said Wendel, who serves as the artistic director for “The Nutcracker.” “We’re finishing on top.”

The performances are at 7:30 p.m. today, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Schwan Community Center for the Performing Arts at Marshall High School.

This year marks the 20th anniversary for PDA, which prides itself on its dedication to education in the art of dance.

“The first thing we try to do is bring in the best dancers we can from all over the country,” Wendel said. “I cannot think of any small town in the U.S. that can put on a production like this. It’s outstanding. We’re giving Marshall the best that we can give them.”

Wendel said the second goal is to not only allow for student participation but to also expose younger dancers to dance professionals, like Zac Hammer, who is dancing at Radio City Music Hall in New York, Danielle (Wendel) Gies, who is with a dance company in Los Angeles, and Eric Coudron, who is attending Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, one of the best dance universities in the country.

“The professional dancers are out there, working with the kids after I’m done with rehearsals,” Wendel said. “So the kids are getting professional training from the best. You wouldn’t find that anywhere else. Most people in New York would probably not rush to come out here to southwest Minnesota.”

The three are all professional dancers with ties to Marshall who are returning as principals in this year’s production. Coudron is cast as the Snow King alongside Gies as the Snow Queen. The duo also perform as Harlequins. Hammer is cast as the Nutcracker in addition to the Cavalier Prince.

“They are excellent,” Wendel said.

Wendel’s praise also includes newcomer Diane Cheeseman, who is cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Cheeseman was trained in a Russian ballet company and is currently in a dance company in L.A.

“She is just an amazing dancer,” Wendel said. “I don’t think people realize just how amazing this production is.”

PDA organizers have spent a year getting ready for “The Nutcracker,” and dancers have been rehearsing since September. Though 2013 marks the seventh time that PDA has presented the classic Christmas ballet, no two have been the same, Wendel said.

“We make it better every year,” she said. “We change the costumes and choreography, add new props. It’s never the same.”

Along with two “Babes in Toyland” productions and one “Alice in Wonderland” performance, the seventh “Nutcracker” production is a milestone, at 10, for PDA. The effort was not without the cooperation of numerous individuals, businesses and organizations like the Marshall Area Fine Arts Council (MAFAC) and the Marshall Area Stage Company (MASC).

“We are very satisfied with how much we have built over the years,” said J. Jurgens, PDA president. “We keep adding set pieces and adding ideas. This year, we have mice and rats that are coming to the party through the audience, rather than just showing up for the battle scene. Our goal every year is to add a little more, and we’re satisfied that we’ve done that.”

Wendel said she enjoys watching the dancers move up in their roles, all of which are valued.

“All the kids start out as mice,” she said. “It’s neat to see their progression. Clara and the Rat Queen are what everyone wants to be, along with Waltz Pas de Deux.”

Claire Anderson and Rebekah Criquet Danielson split the role of the Rat Queen this year, while the Mouse King is portrayed by Sydney Matthys and Allie Bottelberghe. Emma Thordson and Isaac Marks are the Waltz Pas de Deux, while Sophia Louwagie and Emma Cole split the role of Clara.

“I’m feeling great,” Louwagie said. “I was very excited to get the role of Clara.”

Though she was thrilled, Louwagie quickly got to work.

“I’ve had to do a lot of work,” she said. “It was hard memorizing all my dances because I’m in a lot of them.”

Despite the physical and mental demand, it has been worth it, Louwagie said.

“I’ve been wanting this part since my first Nutcracker,” she said. “That was like six years ago.”

Steve Juhl has been around since the very first PDA production, gradually moving from an adult actor to building sets to assuming the acting director position this year.

“It’s very rewarding, both the acting part and building the sets,” Juhl said. “You can be a kid again. You develop a character on stage and basically take it anywhere you want, within reason.”

Juhl said he is amazed at the discipline and dedication shown from all of the actors, though he didn’t originally feel that way.

“Years ago, if somebody would’ve said, ‘Let’s go to a ballet,’ I would’ve said ‘No way. Are you kidding me?'” he said. “But once I got involved with it and watched all the dedication and hard work that these kids put into this, it was a different story.

“You look at the sores on their toes and feet and realize that they’re dancing every day of the week and on the weekend. The stage is like a home away from home.”

This weekend’s performance also includes the highest number of adults in “Nutcracker” history, Juhl said, mainly because there were enough men who volunteered. The role of Drosselmeyer, the toy-making godfather, is played by Tracy’s Michael Martin, while Martin’s wife Rosemary is cast as Clara’s grandmother and Mother Ginger. Jurgens is Clara’s mother, while her husband Ron McKenzie is Clara’s father.

“We’re really excited because it’s our 20th year of PDA,” Jurgens said. “And we have an alumni day on Saturday. All of the alumni have been invited back, and we’re going to recognize them by having them stand up in the audience.”

Though Wendel does most of the choreography, she said, one of her very first dance students, Rachel Svihel, is the assistant choreographer and assistant director. Susan Geske is also an assistant choreographer.

“I’m Clara’s friend, a soldier and a flower,” Abby Johnson said. “I’m excited for the show.”

The production is funded, in part, by a grant from the Southwest Minnesota Arts and Humanities Council through appropriations from the Minnesota State Legislature with money from the state’s general fund, and its arts and cultural heritage fund that was created by vote of the people of Minnesota on Nov. 4, 2008.

“It’s not easy to put on a production of this caliber,” Wendel. “So this is really something that all of the volunteers can be proud of.”