Inside of a practice room at South Bend’s Southold Dance Theater, six teenage girls wearing matching ballet shoes stand across from each other and slowly raise their arms above their heads. Just as a soft backdrop of piano keys begins to play, the girls start to move together — twirling and pirouetting across the floor, their feet making a uniform sound as they drag against the wood.
Though the dance was just a practice run, the girls will soon be performing their dance decked out in tutus and other garb on the stage of Morris Performing Arts Center as part of Southold Dance Theater’s annual December performance of “The Nutcracker.”
Founded in 1973, Southold Dance Theater is a nationally recognized, pre-professional, nonprofit dance company. Each year, the school of dance trains students, and many of whom have successfully auditioned for some of the nation’s most prestigious dance institutions or gone on to professional dance careers. Under the direction of the professional staff, the school strives to help dancers achieve mastery of technique and performance, according to its mission statement.
“[Southold] promotes the art of dance with a professional quality,” says Artistic Director Calin Radulescu. “Dance is something that was created from the beginning of time. It was created with language. Art is anything that was created for a higher purpose, and dance definitely is that.”
One tradition Southold has kept since its early days is an annual winter performance of the classic ballet, “The Nutcracker,” which it has been hosting since 1980. Dancers in the production range from 3 to 18 years old.
While most will have memories of seeing some form of “The Nutcracker,” its sugar plum fairy, the mouse king or any one of its various dances, throughout their lives, Calin says Southold’s is unlike any other. When he came on board to the theater in 2017, Calin decided to re-envision the classical ballet into something unique to South Bend. The production is now incorporated with South Bend history and landmarks, including the Studebaker Mansion and Cushing Manor.
“I thought it was time to add some newness to this play. As I started studying the South Bend history, I wanted to add that in for the community, so they could feel like they had their own ‘Nutcracker’ production,” Calin says. “It’s not another ‘Nutcracker.’ It’s their ‘Nutcracker,’ and they can be proud of it.”
If the Michiana twist is not enough to draw in audiences, Calin believes that the strength and the professionalism of the dancing will. Carrying with him a long resume including a 10-year dancing career, work as an affiliate professor of dance and ballet master at Grand Valley State University, and assistant artistic director and principal ballet master with the Romanian National Ballet, Calin uses his experience to ensure that Southold’s productions take on professional quality. He works with students to perfect every plié, arabesque and grande jeté.
“I am coming from a strong professional background, so when I am coming to a school, I want it to be as close to professionally trained as possible, and I want it to be the same level of dancing and intricacy of movement,” he says. “I believe that resonates with audiences.”
The work that Southold puts into training its dancers does more than provide audiences with a spectacular show. Calin says it also benefits the dancers themselves. He said that dance training teaches his students discipline and dedication — and his students agree.
More than an hour before their Wednesday night practice, six of Calin’s high school senior students — Claire and Emma Kirner, Tegan Wright, Jillian Henning, Julia Zusi and Joey Shreve — gathered outside of the art director’s office, giggling, laughing and socializing as they waited for their practice to begin.
For years, the girls have spent several hours each week together dancing and perfecting their form. In those hours, the girls said they have learned discipline and determination and gained confidence and life-long friends.
“Dance drew into so many relationships and taught me so much,” Julia says, as the other girls nod in agreement. “It’s taught me so much growth.”
“We have such a community here, and we are able to support each other through the tough days,” Claire says. “We’ve definitely gone through a lot, and that has made us and our friendships stronger.”
As much as the girls have learned from Southold Dance Theater, the time is coming for them to say goodbye. As seniors, when the curtain closes on the final night of performances, they will have completed their final “Nutcracker” performance with the company. Though they may soon be leaving the dance company behind, they say they plan to keep the lessons it taught them as they go into the future.
“It’s bittersweet. I’m sad to leave the Southold family,” Emma says, looking around her director’s office. “It’s sad to leave this behind. … I’ll never forget it.”
“It’s daunting, but it’s exciting. It’s happy, but it’s also sad,” Joey adds. “It’s a little bit of everything all in one.”
Before they take their final bow, the senior girls and Calin are encouraging everyone to attend Southold’s performance of “The Nutcracker” and see the product of the school’s hard work.
“You should bring the whole family to it because it’s a family story and ballet,” Calin says. “Also, because it is done on Christmas, it is something that brings the joy of the season into someone’s life.” χ