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By Allison Geyer
LaCrosse Tribune
December 8, 2013

Katherine Burelbach plays Maria and John Divney plays the Nutcracker in La Crosse Dance Centre’s Nutcracker (photo by Rory O'Driscoll) 2013[La Crosse, Wisconsin, USA] – John Divney was the first boy cast in the La Crosse Dance Centre’s “Nutcracker Ballet” when he made his debut at age 8. Now, the Aquinas senior will be the first high school student to play the production’s title role — a decade after declaring to his family that “someday, (he) wanted to be that Nutcracker Prince.”

“I haven’t really had time to think about how much responsibility it is,” said Divney, who is very much in demand this season. At one point, he was juggling roles in his high school musical, the La Crosse Symphony’s Viennese Christmas concert and Dancing with the La Crosse Stars. “I’m sure somebody along the lines would have done it, but it’s cool that it got to be me,” he said.

In past La Crosse Dance Centre’s “Nutcracker” productions, girls have danced traditionally male roles or dancers from Viterbo University or professional companies have danced the male leads, said artistic director Nikki Balsamo.“(Divney) is kind of a pioneer in a lot of ways, especially being in a smaller city,” Balsamo said. “He’s a great role model for the younger boys.

Divney said his favorite part of the role is dancing with his partner, Katherine Burelbach, who will play the part of Maria for the second year in a row.

Fresh from a summer in New York City studying at the prestigious Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet, Burelbach is excited to have a second chance at the role and hopes to elevate her dancing to a new level. “I’m picking up right where I left off last year,” Burelbach said. “It’s like one huge journey.”

One of 60 dancers selected for the elite pre-professional program, Burelbach picked up pointers for the role from Gelsey Kirkland herself, who was a prima ballerina with the New York City Ballet in the 1970s and 1980s and was famous for dancing the same role in the 1977 televised version of “The Nutcracker.”

“This year, I’m going to try in the choreography to tell the story in every move and every detail,” Burelbach said. “That’s something that adds a lot of magic, and it’s something that added magic to Gelsey Kirkland’s dancing.”

In addition to the Nutcracker Prince and Maria, the ballet is full of other challenging roles for the dancers. Ronnie Rathgaber, a sophomore at Central High School, studied Youtube videos and worked with her dance teacher to perfect the powerful role of the Sugarplum Fairy. “She’s very regal and proud and caring,” said Rathgaber. “Sometimes I forget that I’m 15 years old.”

Dancing in “The Nutcracker” is a tradition for Rathgaber and many of the other 90 cast members performing next weekend. With auditions in June and rehearsals beginning in mid-August, it’s a big commitment, but it’s a rewarding experience from start to finish.

“We’re all one big family,” she said. “It’s a great way to spend the holidays.”

© Copyright 2014, La Crosse Tribune

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