Springfield Ballet Company presents The Nutcracker

For more than 40 years, the Springfield Ballet Company has brought professional quality dance and performance to Springfield, and it all started thanks to three women and the company’s first-ever production, The Nutcracker. Born out of a merging of two local dance companies—Copper Coin Ballet, started by Mildred Caskey, and Ballet Concert Group, started by Dorothy Irvine, who had served as Caskey’s ballet mistress at Copper Coin before setting out on her own. With Springfield unable to fully support two ballet companies, Grace Luttrell Nanavati, the artistic director for Copper Coin, reached out to Irvine to bring the two together, forming the Springfield Ballet Company. The two served as co-directors until Irvine retired after seeing through the company’s first year.

Today, the SBC is still thriving, thanks to three other women, who this weekend will oversee the company’s 43rd annual production of The Nutcracker: Julie Ratz, artistic director; Sally Hamilton, administrative director; and Gina DeCroix Russell, ballet mistress.

One of those women has been there from the start.

“I was in The Nutcracker in the very beginning, in ’75,” Ratz said. “Then I danced in the company until I left for college but then I came back as the ballet ministers in 1981 and became the artistic director in 1997. I've only not been with the ballet company from 1985 to 1991.”

DeCroix Russell also has a longstanding connection to the SBC.

“I danced in the Nutcracker when I was a kid also, and I was a company dancer,” she said. “I stopped dancing for a couple of years and tried soccer and volleyball and other stuff my peers were doing. And then realized how much I miss dancing.”

Hamilton never danced, and her daughter only took lessons for a couple years. But when her job in human resources at Memorial Health System was restructured and a position opened up at the company, she applied right away, as she was a fan of the company’s Rockballet and Nutcracker productions.

Together, the three women oversee every aspect of the ballet company, from choreography to performance production planning to fundraising, marketing and community education efforts. Apart from the company’s three major productions—the holiday season’s Nutcracker, fall’s Rockballet and spring’s Faerie Tale—they also produce Leap into Lincoln, a biennial educational program, their Ballet Outreach Program with the Bus and Girls Clubs which culminates in a recital performance, and Men in Tights, an annual performance starring some of Springfield’s most notable—and inexperienced, dancewise—men.

“There's no normal day,” Ratz said. “Some weeks I work 10 hours, some weeks I work 60. In performance week it's 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday to Sunday. Basically from the time school starts until spring show, it's full force, and then we have a little break. We do even more in the summer than we do in the school year, because the dancers are out of school and we bring in guest choreographers. We had somebody in here every week all summer. So it's always different and I think that's what makes it fun.”

Much of that work is in the way of fundraising. With all of their programs and projects, in conjunction with the loss of some state funding (funding the company used to get from the state as compared to what they receive today is, as Hamilton put it, “quite a bit different. Like by 10 or 15 thousand.”), the team has had to get creative with their spending. 

“I mean you just you do it,” Hamilton said. “You see the need and you adapt and you adjust. Yeah, we don't have the same support from grants and funding, but we find a way to make it all work.”

“Spin straw into gold, that's what I like to call it,” Ratz continued. “We don't have much money and you can't believe like how little we spend to put on the productions that we put on. We keep and reuse a lot.”

Overseeing a group of almost 30 dancers in the company, all teenagers between 13 and 18 years old, the trio finds a lot of joy in their girls.

‘Nothing's better than Thursday night a dress rehearsal for Nutcracker,” Hamilton said. “All those kids are coming in, and it's like the coolest thing in the whole world to them that they're coming through a stage door. And to watch them all line up and in their costumes and their makeup. It just keeps you young at heart.”

“There are times that they're teenagers,” Ratz said. “But there are times when they act so grown up and really take good care of each other. Watching them take care of each other, it makes you so proud.”

For these three women, all the work, the hours, and creative thinking in terms of fundraising and cost-saving, it’s all worth it.

“The arts are vital to the community. And so I want to live in a place that has art. And so I'm going to help create that art. That's how I feel,” Ratz said. “I can't imagine living in a city that didn't have ballet company and a symphony. Because I think that's what we live for. To feel. And I'm grateful that it gives kids self-esteem and grace and poise and it teaches them about responsibility, discipline and dedication. I want my community to be filled with people like people that are involved with the Ballet Company.”

The Springfield Ballet Company’s performances of The Nutcracker will be held this weekend at the Sangamon Auditorium. Visit the company’s website for more information.

Saturday, December 9, 2017
2:00 p.m. & 8:00 p.m.
Sunday, December 10, 2017
2:00 p.m.