Three Ballet Quad Cities dancers brought the magic of “The Nutcracker” to 3rd-grade students in Rock Island Wednesday morning.

Ahead of the beloved annual student matinee performance Friday at the Adler Theatre, Ridgewood Elementary School was among all 3rd-grade classrooms in Rock Island and Davenport that the professional dancers are visiting, to give the kids behind-the-scenes tidbits about the classic holiday ballet.

A scene from the 2022 Ballet Quad Cities production of “The Nutcracker,” coming to the Adler Theatre, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 10-11.

Dancers Eleanor Ambler, Kira Roberts and Madeline Rhode discussed the story of the 1892 Tchaikovsky ballet, some of the costumes, and played short musical excerpts. Ambler taught the very well-behaved students some of the dance moves, they did them together with the music, and after each, Ambler praised them, saying, “Great job, dancers.” The women also answered several student questions.

“When Clara is a Sugar Plum Fairy, she’s magical and she walks like she’s walking on a cloud. It looks almost like she’s floating,” Ambler told the kids. “We have some very special shoes that help her do that.”

She talked about the dancers’ pointe shoes, as Rhode showed the students one. When Ambler asked what they were made from, one child responded, “the future.”

Madeline Rhode, right, shows off a ballet pointe shoe as Eleanor Ambler looks on (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The shoes are made of many layers of glue and cloth, like papier mache, with a very hard, sturdy end.

“It’s a lot of layers of that glue and that makes the shoe really supported, for the dancers to stand in,” Ambler said. “It helps us stand all the way on our toes like this, so it takes years and years of training to stand in a pointe shoe. Because even though it’s supported, you need to have super strong feet to stand up there.”

Rhode banged the shoe on the ground for the students, and the kids did the same with their shoes. Rhode also showed how small bits of paper are used on stage for the snow scene, and Ambler asked how lighting is changed for the different dances.

Madeline Rhode shows how bits of paper represent falling snow at Ridgewood Elementary School on Dec. 7, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

The dancers and Ridgewood music teacher Mara Goodvin discussed how students should behave during the Friday morning matinee at the Adler.

“We are blessed in the Quad Cities to have a professional ballet company that provides these outstanding outreach opportunities for our students,” Goodvin said later Wednesday. “Ballet Quad Cities has always been a wonderful partner with the Rock Island School District, we are grateful to the Rock Island Community Foundation and the Illinois Arts Council for funding these events.”

“Our audience is awesome”

“This is your show, we want you to have fun,” Roberts said. “If you see something awesome, we want you to clap. It’s one of our favorite shows of the entire season, because our audience is awesome, and you are super, super awesome.”

The first QC “Nutcracker” was about 30 years ago in Geneseo for the Girl Scouts, company executive director Joedy Cook said. The ballet has offered free student matinees for 3rd graders at the Adler for years, and before that at Davenport’s Capitol Theatre.

Ballet QC dancers Kira Roberts, left, Eleanor Ambler and Maddie Rhode work with Ridgewood 3rd grade students in Mara Goodvin’s classroom (photo by Jonathan Turner).

School outreach programs for all Davenport and Rock Island 3rd graders. About 2,000 students will fill the Adler Friday, including some Pleasant Valley and homeschooled students, Cook said.

The first school district they did outreach programs was Rock Island, and BQC now has outreach for 1st through 5th grades – including bullying prevention for 1st, reading for 2nd, and music for 3rd.

The new 4th grade program is “Dance as Conversation,” and 5th is “Dance as Knowledge.” The 4th grade shows students the craft of choreography while developing leadership, expression, attention, and participation.

“These students are our future audiences,” Cook said. “The beauty and uniqueness of our company is that we go into these schools. You don’t have to come to us. They’re all doing it. The kids aren’t goofing off.”

Dancers Kira Roberts, left, and Eleanor Ambler talk to Ridgewood 3rd-grade students about “The Nutcracker” ballet Dec. 7, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

A native of Cambridge, Mass., Ambler is in her second season with BQC. She has trained at Boston Ballet School, Orlando Ballet School, and various summer programs including Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet and American Ballet Theater in New York.

“In my life, dance has been a foundational passion and I feel the more we can share that with the next generation, the better,” she said Wednesday. “If we can reach one or two or 50,000 kids with the joy that dance has brought to me and other dancers in the company, that’s something beautiful and that’s more meaning, more connection and more art we can give to the coming generation.”

Communicating stories

Ambler loves dance for the ability to wordlessly share stories on stage.

“Music, I find, has the ability to communicate things that words sometimes can’t, so dancing to music is a way to really put a human body to that and convey the human experience,” she said.

The outreach helps prepare students to see the live performance and gives insight into the production.

The students learned “Nutcracker” choreography Wednesday and danced with the professionals (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“It’s a beautiful theater and you get to see the whole production on stage,” Ambler said. “We just did two shows in Cedar Rapids last weekend, and we got our sea legs. We are so excited. The student matinee for most of us in the company is one of our favorite shows to perform, because kids get so excited.

The Ballet Quad Cities snowflakes dancing in “The Nutcracker” in Cedar Rapids last weekend (photo by Joseph Maciejko)

“You hear them screaming and shouting out in the audience,” she said. “Such a great energy comes from them.”

BQC’s goal is to instill an appreciation of dance and the arts among students, Ambler said.

“It’s that human connection through the arts – it teaches empathy; it teaches creativity and thinking, and all sorts of other skills,” she said. “Having that outreach in the classroom really solidifies what they’re learning. Rather than just seeing the production, which is exciting and fun, they get to have more an understanding of what they’re seeing.

“They have some knowledge to connect it with and some understanding of the story,” Ambler said. “It really can stick rather than just seeing the show.”

BQC prides itself on offering outreach to people of all ages.

The dancers have fun with Ridgewood students on Dec. 7, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“For us, joy in this work is seeing young people discover an entirely new vocabulary for expressing themselves through movement and take pride in trying out something unfamiliar,” the company website says. “It is witnessing the twinkle in the eye of an older Quad Citizen moving in time with their peers to songs they remember from decades ago. It’s reading the countless thank-you letters and drawings from elementary school students after seeing their first full-length, live ballet performance.

“It’s dancing alongside an individual with a disability who is so excited to dance to music they simply cannot resist coming to the front of the room. It is seeing often-quiet professional ballet dancers find their voices as teaching artists and be able to connect face-to-face with members of their Quad Cities community,” the site says.

“The Nutcracker” will performed at the Adler (136 E. 3rd St., Davenport) on Saturday, Dec. 10 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Dec. 11 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $20, $17, and $11 for children 12 and under; $14-$32 for students and seniors, and $18-$36 for adults.

For tickets and more information, visit the Ballet QC website. For a slideshow on Wednesday’s outreach, click on the images below.