Theater

After 26 years, Judith Svalander's ‘Nutcracker’ still bringing families together

Once Clara, Ashley Wallen (Fredricksen) of Woodstock will watch her daughter, Colette, perfrom on stage this year as a sparkling ribbon fairy and a party child. And after performing many roles themselves, Katie Kozlowski of Lakewood and Amber Clouse of Crystal Lake will both return to the stage with family this year. They will play the parts of Clara's Aunts, Uncles and Cousins. Clouse will perform with her brother and niece, while Kozlowski will join her husband and daughter on stage.
Once Clara, Ashley Wallen (Fredricksen) of Woodstock will watch her daughter, Colette, perfrom on stage this year as a sparkling ribbon fairy and a party child. And after performing many roles themselves, Katie Kozlowski of Lakewood and Amber Clouse of Crystal Lake will both return to the stage with family this year. They will play the parts of Clara's Aunts, Uncles and Cousins. Clouse will perform with her brother and niece, while Kozlowski will join her husband and daughter on stage.

Not only is “The Nutcracker Ballet” at the Woodstock Opera House a family tradition, it’s become a family affair with 16 families on stage representing generations of “Nutcracker” enthusiasts.

Judith Svalander never imagined when her beloved version of “The Nutcracker Ballet” first opened at the Opera House 26 years ago she’d still be bringing families together for a classic holiday tradition. And she especially had no idea they’d be sharing the joy of the show from the stage, along with the audience. 

This year, she said, as rehearsals began for the upcoming production it dawned on her just how many generations of families are involved.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, this is so amazing,’ ” said Svalander, who pointed out she’s basically been bringing “The Nutcracker” to stage every Christmas “my whole entire life” – first as a dancer in the 1960s and later through her Judith Svalander Dance Theatre, based in Crystal Lake.

The production draws fans annually who consider it the start of their Christmas season.

Although each year brings new dimensions, Svalander describes her “Nutcracker” as a traditional version. What makes the production stand out is the energy and emotion of the performers, as well as the Opera House itself.

“It’s a smaller theater so when you’re in there, you really do feel that you’re part of what’s going on on the stage,” Svalander said. 

This year’s production opens Dec. 8 at the Opera House, 121 Van Buren St., Woodstock. A final dress rehearsal will be performed at 7 p.m. Dec. 7, with tickets costing $16 all seats. Performance times are 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 8; 2 and 6 p.m. Dec. 9; 7 p.m. Dec. 14; 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 15; and 2 and 6 p.m. Dec. 16. Performance tickets cost $26 for adults and $19 for students at www.woodstockoperahouse.com or 815-338-5300.

Among the roughly 150-member cast are families stretching back at least four generations, including Svalander’s great great niece, 14-year-old Ella Weyland of McHenry, who is playing the lead role of Clara this year. 

Performing in various roles in “The Nutcracker” at the Opera House since she was five, Weyland is the only performer to play the role of Clara twice. In 2015, she was the youngest person to take it on.

“ ‘Nutcracker’ is my favorite time of the year every year,” she said. “It’s kind of that same feeling you get when Christmas comes around each year, that happy feeling, that time of year when everyone’s happy, everyone’s excited to see you perform and the atmosphere is really fun.”

Weyland’s mother, Mika, volunteers backstage, with the show becoming a family tradition, as it is for many throughout McHenry County.

“It’s so close to all of our hearts because it’s been such a part of our family,” she said.

It’s a similar feeling for all involved, such as Tom Bieschke of Oakwood Hills, performing for the first time in the production. He’ll take the stage as Clara’s father, while his son, 15-year-old Kenny, performs the role of the Prince. 

Kenny first performed in “The Nutcracker” at the Opera House as a gingerbread boy when he was 7. Becoming the Prince is a dream.

“It’s something I’ve looked forward to my entire life,” he said. “It’s the role you want to be when you’re a little kid.”

With both her husband and son on stage this year, Kate Bieschke once again will chair the boutique committee, which hosts a Nutcracker Boutique featuring jewelry and other items for sale as a fundraiser for “Nutcracker” costumes and the Judith Svalander School of Ballet scholarship fund.

The boutique will be set up at the Opera House during production times.

Like many involved, much of the family’s devotion to the production stems from Svalander. 

“Judith has been so open and kind and caring and supportive,” Kate Bieschke said. “Just that whole place has really helped our son become the young man he is today. It’s a joy for us to be part of that community. It’s like a family for us. To be able to give back to that means the world. It’s a very powerful place for young people to be.”

It’s a powerful place for older people, as well. 

Tim Lawrence of Crystal Lake used to drive his three now-grown daughters back and forth to “Nutcracker” rehearsals, never thinking he’d one day take the stage. But for the past 17 years or so, he’s played the Grandfather, even sharing the stage with a granddaughter who surprised him a couple years ago by sitting on his lap during the beginning Party Scene. No one had told Lawrence she’d joined the cast.

Lawrence’s wife, Mary Kay, has done the costumes for the production for 40 years.

“It immediately puts you in the Christmas season, and it’s a good story,” he said. “It’s wonderful music. It’s wonderful dance, and it’s performed on a beautiful stage, and Judith is outstanding. … We’re so fortunate to have her in McHenry County.”

Many past performers will return to watch their children play roles this year, while others will join family members on stage. 

They return out of tradition, but also devotion to Svalander and the legacy she’s created. Svalander’s astounded by the show’s success, but always has lived by the belief, “If you’re doing it with love, you can do amazing things.” 

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