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Families who ballet together, stay together

Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published Dec. 6, 2007, 1:21 p.m.)

Terry Mayer/The Week
?Peter Birdsall rehearses for his role as the Prince in the upcoming Illinois Youth Dance Theatre’s
production of “The Nutcracker.”


Outstanding children are often acknowledged for their skills in sports--football, volleyball, baseball and others. Local newspapers, company newsletters and school display cases tout their accomplishments.

We honor them for winning championships and representing their schools and hometowns positively.

But what about the kids who excel in other activities that aren't part of school programs or as popular?

Take, for example, the four members of the Birdsall family, Peter, David, Leah and Nathan, of Walworth.

All are pre-professional ballet dancers and performing in "The Nutcracker," Dec. 21-22, Lake Zurich Performing Arts Center, in Lake Zurich, Ill.

Jon and Barbi Birdsall enrolled their children, Peter, 14, David, 11, Leah, 8, and Nathan, 5, into a local dance school seven years ago on a gym class-type of basis.

"The kids are home-schooled," Barbi explains. "I was looking for a program that could be a gym class."

It only took a few months to see that the kids were really enjoying it, and really good at it.

"It clicked with everybody," she continued. "And I love that it's something we can do all together."

"It's a sport that teaches a lot of teamwork, just like any sport," Jon added.

Since then, members of the Birdsall ballet troop have found a comfortable fit with the Illinois Youth Dance Theatre, Inc., and performed at Badger High School and about a dozen other performing arts venues in southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois.

(Another Walworth County dancer, Kara Motta, a Badger High School student from Pell Lake, is also a member of the Illinois Youth Dance Theatre.)

This year, Peter landed the role as the Prince, the handsome hero the Nutcracker becomes in Maria's Christmas Eve dreams.

Terry Mayer/The Week
??Nathan Birdsall performs as a dancing mouse in his first stage performance.

Actually, five--not four--Birdsalls have roles in the production. Jon's in on the fun portraying the grandfather.

"It's a comfortable role," he says. "It's nothing big. I get to act confused--which isn't that hard. And I wear retired military garb."

"Nothing big?" Most fathers of four would not even consider getting right out there with their kids in a very physical sport.

David plays a party boy, including a classic Celtic piece with just a few other dancers. Leah is a rag doll, Spanish dancer, Chinese dancer and candy cane soldier. And Nathan is a dancing mouse in his first stage performance.

"David is the kind of person--he can just watch a dance sequence and he's got it," Jon said.

"Much to their dismay," he grins and gestures to his other kids as they agree.

"He got the Arabian Dance really just by watching it," Peter said. "I don't know how he does that."

 Since the Sept. 14 auditions, the kids have practiced four times a week. Peter does at least 200 push-ups every day to increase his strength without bulking up too much.

"When you lift weights you get too big and lose flexibility," he says.

To have such an important role is a little nerve-racking, he said. He has to know his and Marie's (played by Chantelle Mrowka, of Johnsburg, Ill.) part inside and out--as does she. This includes every movement's exact body placement, posture, balance and finite coordination through repertories to classical music for long periods of time.

It's an exhausting thought.

But most importantly, it's Peter's job to make sure she's safe, especially during the lifts and jumps.

This point was driven home for him as he and Jeremy Pabst, of Wonder Lake, Ill., rehearsed the big fight scene. Pabst, portraying the Rat King, was slow on a duck and caught Peter's sword directly in the neck. Thankfully, it was a prop sword, but it was no Nerf either.

"He said he was pretty sore," Peter said. "We all have to pay really close attention."

Risks included, the fight is by far his favorite part, he said, comparing it to the fights from the Star Wars movies.

Terry Mayer/The Week
?Leah Birdsall rehearses for her roles as a rag doll, Spanish dancer, Chinese dancer and candy cane soldier.


The costumes are Leah's favorite part of the show.

"Especially the candy cane," she said.

Some costumes and backdrops are on loan from the Milwaukee Ballet, amping up the grand ballet appeal substantially.

"The whole show is a feast for the eyes," Barbi says.

"This is not a small-time production," Jon adds. "It's a $30,000 production."

The kids' other interests are: Archery, shooting sports and reading for Peter. David and Leah both enjoy drawing with Leah's being full of color and life; and David's are entire scenes with every detail and 3-D angle included. For now, Nathan is enjoying the 5-year-old perspective of life and already showing an interest in the piano.

"If you come to the show you'll see a lot of movement and jumping," Peter invites. "We present a story through motion and dance, which is pretty cool.

"Plus you can see my fight."

"The Nutcracker" will be performed by the Illinois Youth Dance Theatre, Inc., at the Lake Zurich Performing Arts Center, 300 Church St., Lake Zurich, Ill., Friday, Dec. 21 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Dec. 22, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets are $25 and group discounts are available. Printable tickets and more information are available at www.dancepasg.com.

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Illinois Youth Dance Theatre

The Illinois Youth Dance Theatre, 1803C Holian Drive, Spring Grove, Ill., (815) 675-9359, is a non-profit dance company offering professional instruction, community outreach and public performing. 

Most of their dancers train at Performing Arts of Spring Grove (Ill.). Their home base is the Performing Arts of Spring Grove, Inc.

Alyce Keaggy-Brinkmann, owner and artistic director of Performing Arts of Spring Grove, Inc., and Janice Lewis, owner and business manager, oversee classes from 3 years olds to adults for beginners through pre-professional levels.

For more information, call or visit www.dancepasg.com.

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The Nutcracker

"The Nutcracker" ballet is the story of a young girl's dream based on The Nutcracker and the King of Mice, written by E.T.A. Hoffman,

Terry Mayer/The Week
?David Birdsall, who plays a party boy, will perform with his father, two brothers and his sister.


It opens in the Party Scene. It's Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house, a grand house with the most beautiful tree imaginable. The children, Maria and Fritz, dance and play as guests arrive.

Godfather Drosselmeyer presents gifts to the children including a beautiful Nutcracker for Maria, making Fritz very jealous. Later in the evening he breaks the Nutcracker, but Drosselmeyer is able to fix it.

Maria crawls under the tree to protect her Nutcracker, falls asleep and dreams herself into a world of war waging between all of the other toys--now alive--and an army of mice under the tree, and she's as small as they are.

After a valiant victory, the Nutcracker turns into a Prince and takes Maria on a journey to the Land of Snow, then the Land of Sweets where everyone celebrates by dancers including the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier performing the Spanish, Arabian, Russian, Chinese and Mirliton dances, and finally the Waltz of Flowers.

Source: Brad Maxwell, www.nutcrackerballet.net.

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To Do

What: "The Nutcracker," by the Illinois Youth Dance Theatre, Inc.

When: Dec. 21-22

Where: Lake Zurich Performing Arts Center, 300 Church St., Lake Zurich, Ill.,

Info: Tickets are $25 and group discounts are available. Printable tickets and more information are available at www.dancepasg.com.

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