Behind the scenes at Classical Ballet Academy’s ‘Nutcracker’

See why this dance school is attracting both students and audiences to their programs …

CBA dancers Katrina Cunningham and Brooke Thornberry touch up their makeup, moments before they go onstage in “The Nutcracker”.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
For those hoping to read a review of Classical Ballet Academy’s production of “The Nutcracker”, here it is: It was wonderful!

The performance we saw, performed at St. Mary’s Academy, and delivered on its promise of presenting this holiday classic with professional costumes, extravagant sets, and original choreography.

“I thought it would be quaint,” Helen Hildebrandt told us following the afternoon performance early in December, “so, I took family, visiting from out-of-town, to see it. But we agree — the performance and staging was what you’d expect from a professional ballet company in any major city.”

Director says she loves Sellwood
Although she only opened the academy in 2004, Rigles said there are now 250 students ranging in age from 3 to 70 years. Several of her students have received scholarships for college dance programs. Last summer, ten students went to a professional dance program in Boston.

“The first classes I taught here in Portland were at the Sellwood Community Center,” Rigles said. “I wanted to start a school for people serious about ballet. The continuing support I’ve had from students and parents in inner Southeast Portland is why I chose to open the academy here.”

Behind the scenes
Rigles gave us unprecedented back-stage access, as her student dancers readied themselves for their performances.

“From September through December every year since I was three years old, ‘The Nutcracker’ has been part of my life,” Rigles told us as she adjusted a student’s costume. “I’ve danced all the different parts. It is something that is part of my life ‚Äì and now, it is part of my students’ lives, too.”

The costumes at CBA’s production of this holiday classic were charming and very professional. Here, young dancers make their final preparations to go on stage.

In every room backstage at St. Mary’s Academy, dancers were putting on their makeup and adjusting their hairstyles. Others were limbering up and stretching, getting ready to perform athletic ballet moves.

CBA’s Director, Sarah Rigles, gives her students a heartfelt pep talk moments before the curtain goes up on their performance of “The Nutcracker”.

A group of young dancers looked nervous as they stood in the hallway. Rigles gathered them around her and gave each of young ballerinas a small memento. “You have danced these parts so well, so many times,” she said sincerely. “You are prepared. I’m so proud of you. You’ll do really well. Now, have fun and do well.”

Parent volunteers lend a hand
As we reported on the students’ backstage preparation, we noticed many adults, calmly helping out. “We couldn’t stage a show of this magnitude without the help of our 150 parent volunteers,” Rigles told us, as she rushed past more than a dozen backstage assistants — prop and set managers and costumers.

As the show’s opening overture was about to start, we made our way into the audience. We were greeted by usher John Southgate, formerly an East Portland Development Commission manager, now Economic Development Manager of Hillsboro. “Even though we’ve moved to the west side,” Southgate said, “Our kids love this school. It is an honor to help out.”

Teaches more than dance
Taking their seats were the family of eastside attorney and Sellwood resident Pete Diamond. His daughter, Caroline, 7, was about to dance as a mouse in this show. And 4-year-old Phoebe had her turn onstage earlier in the day, when she performed in the academy’s scaled-down version of the show, “The Nutcracker Suite”.

“What they learn goes beyond dancing,” Diamond said. “It gives them confidence and poise. You can see how the kids ‘grow up’ through the program. Even if they stop dancing at some point, they’ve still gained a lot, in terms learning dance, and becoming more confident ladies and men.”

He added that all students get personal attention. “They connect with all their students, regardless of age, and help make even the youngest students feel comfortable performing on stage.”

Curtain time! Nearly every seat at the St. Mary’s Academy theater was filled as this holiday classic came to life.

The large, 650-seat theater St. Mary’s Academy was filled to capacity as the house lights dimmed and the production began. It was, indeed, a very good show.

¬© 2006 David F. Ashton ~ East PDX News

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