Evolution of a ballet

A demanding yet rewarding 'Nutcracker Suite' comes to fruition

Fairfield Daily Republic ©

VACAVILLE - Heidi LuMaye sits inside a studio at her ballet academy, talking to a group of pretty little girls wearing perfect bows on their heads. Their parents sit alongside them.

"When you sign this paper, I own your child for the next three months," she informs the parents of the future "party children." A stack of contracts stare them all in the face. "And that sometimes means giving up a birthday party. It's also a financial commitment. Know that ahead of time."

It's mid-September, the weather is still warm and 29-year-old LuMaye, artistic director and co-founder of the nonprofit Vacaville Ballet Theatre Company, is already one month into rehearsals for the production of "The Nutcracker Suite," performed early in December.

She grins. "It's not the traditional version because I don't do anything traditional."

LuMaye, a tall woman whose dark features are accentuated by her creamy skin, spent eight years training as a merit scholar with the San Francisco Ballet , the National Ballet of Canada, the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Marin Ballet before opening her studio in 1994.
Since then, LuMaye presented yearly spring and holiday productions at the Vacaville Performing Arts Theatre. But make no mistake, these two-hour presentations are not recitals, nor does she want them to be considered as such.

"There's a time and place for that," she says adamantly. Her last spring show cost more than $60,000. "That's not the purpose of our company productions."

Her goal, instead, is to give each student a positive foundation filled with a history and training in ballet so that they can confidently pursue their desires.

"I think if we educate and teach children to appreciate art and dance, they learn at a higher level than if they're not exposed to it," she says.

Back at the studio, where 11 young girls sit patiently with big eyes and heartening dreams, LuMaye gives them instructions, looking at them directly in the eyes solidly but warmly.

"You have to set an example for students not in the show," she tells them. "Be respectful, do your homework, have your hair done and you need to attend ( ballet ) classes as well as rehearsals."

"We can't miss any classes?" asks one young student timidly in a tiny voice.

"No. There are no vacations, only Thanksgiving weekend," LuMaye replies to the silent group. "OK, any more questions? You're free to go."

Watch your lines

If LuMaye is guilty of one thing, it's being too passionate.

Several weeks later, LuMaye has dropped her vibrant smile and is now stressed.

With only three weeks left before the show, the girls are learning a new dance for a short performance at the Vacaville Public Library - just one of LuMaye's contributions to the community.

Adding to the tension, her newly arrived point shoes for her role as the Snow Queen in "The Suite" don't fit. Finding shoes this time of the year will be a Christmas miracle.

She stands in the center of the studio carefully rotating her eyes to see each movement by her dancers.

"Sloppy girls! I know I changed the choreography but c'mon, you can do this!" she shouts. "We're going into two hours of practice. You need to know the format by now!"

Direct and boisterous, LuMaye is the daughter of Cheri Glankler, a classical jazz dancer who once danced in the Bay Area and Southern California.

"My mom has been the most unselfish person to give me all her time and energy," the Vacaville resident says. "The money, the driving to San Francisco and her patience - I learned a lot from her. I think she's incredible."

Glankler is an instructor at the school, affectionately known as Miss Cheri to a group of young students just beginning to embrace the age-old dance.

"I only teach the little ones, I'm the nurturer," Glankler of Vacaville says. She is also the costume designer. "I know proper placement and I draw the line right there. After that, they belong to Heidi."

She gives a warm laugh, one a mother has for her daughter when reflecting on their shared lives.

"When Heidi was 8 years old, she was seen by artistic director Shamil Yagudin, who's with the Russian Ballet and will, on occasion, come into town to see new dancers," she says of a performance LuMaye had in Stockton. "He told me she should be dancing every day at the San Francisco Ballet ."

By 13, LuMaye was giving lessons to students in Solano County while attending classes in San Francisco. This is when LuMaye realized her fate.

"One of the reasons I opened a school is because there were girls around me who didn't have that support of going into the city to take lessons," she says. LuMaye had the choice of pursuing a dance career with the Pacific Northwest Ballet , but opted to teach instead.

"I don't think the limitation of having support or money should prevent students from being able to learn ballet ," she says. "I want to give them an opportunity locally.

"People can't be happy or satisfied unless they're passionate about it," she adds. "And I'm very passionate, I see all the positive (of ballet ) and how it influenced my life. I want to give that to the girls."

Rehearsals, please

One day before opening, the weather is damp, the energy inside the theater is sizzling and LuMaye still hasn't received her point shoes.

The artistic director sits inside the control room deep in thought, setting cues for lighting and music. On stage, Cassandra Eifert and Nikki Smith, lead Arabian dancers, are moving stealthy around the floor to a slow and mesmerizing piece - an example of LuMaye's passionate choreography.

Meanwhile, in the dressing room, more than 22 teenagers are perched in front of lighted vanity mirrors brushing their hair and doing their makeup. Others are spinning in their new rat costumes or doing their homework.

"What happened to your costume?" asks one girl to another.

"I don't know. I think I shrunk. It was tight before," the other responds in confusion. They laugh.

On stage left is Michelle Shanks without whose help, she says, LuMaye would have a conniption.

"You either have a kid in this show or you had one," she says. Shanks, who runs an emergency room in Contra Costa County, has taken two weeks off each of the past 12 years to do LuMaye's holiday and spring shows, even though her sons no longer take lessons with LuMaye.

"My boys had problems with patterns and you can learn patterns by dance," she says and comments her boys are now in college. "This teaches you to follow direction and builds confidence."

LuMaye, now on stage, is changing the choreography around the larger-than-life gift box and Christmas tree.

"Where are the boxes? They're not here," LuMaye says somewhat calmly and looks at Shanks, who then scrambles to find them.

A "Suite" show

It's 7 a.m. when LuMaye walks into the theater with a cup of coffee in hand and one pair of newly arrived point shoes. She heads straight for the dressing room and prepares for her performance.

"I'm tired," she says in a hoarse voice. "I don't know when I fell asleep. I just sat down next to my husband and I was gone."

By 7:30 a.m., the dancers are on stage ready for warm-up. Some are stretching on the bar while others slice the air with splits. Within minutes, all are following LuMaye's lead, opening up to the day like morning glory flowers.

"It's crucial girls that we warm up before we perform," she tells them as they jump through the air. "We don't want to get hurt."

It's only a short time before Glankler's voice resounds on the speaker to a large audience and the girls are in costume.

"Good morning ladies and gentlemen and welcome to the first performance of Vacaville Ballet Academy's 'The Nutcracker Suite.' " she says as the clock strikes 9:30 a.m.

And the curtain goes up.

End of Act II

Toward the end of Act II on Sunday evening, their last performance for the year, the dancers are giddy and antsy.

LuMaye, who has been replaced by Kristen Suikhonen as the Snow Queen so that she can instead work backstage, is more relaxed. Whatever mishaps surfaced during the past five shows are fixed and there's a sense of calm.

Nevertheless, she stands on stage right wearing headsets and watches the girls diligently. Her father, Robert Glankler, however, has other plans.

"My dad is so corky. See him dancing over there?" she says.

As the dancers perform the flower scene, he mimics them behind the second curtain, raising his hands awkwardly above his head causing a small laugh or large smile to escape their earnest expressions.

"I do this all the time," he says, a few sweat beads escaping his forehead. "I don't mess them up, I see them laugh."

The end of the show arrives, which for some is their last performance with the company. The curtain drops.

Loud applause, tears and hugs spread throughout the stage, with flashes of light recording these final moments.

"We had some issues with this show, but we made it through," LuMaye tells the girls as pearl-shaped tears fall from the corners of her eyes.

"Thank you so much for a great performance. That's why I do this. I love you guys," she says before walking off stage to pack the "Nutcracker" gear for next year.