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Impressed with talented dancers at her small studio, Jennifer Sager was determined to produce the beloved holiday ballet The Nutcracker as a gift to southeastern Idaho decades ago.
“We’ve performed it every year since 1989,” said Sager, owner of Centre Stage Studios of Dance and Performing Arts in Burley. “For years, the nearest production was 40 miles away in Twin Falls. I knew we had the talent to do our own show locally.”
In the classic story, on Christmas Eve a young girl named Clara receives a nutcracker that transforms into a prince. A symbol of hope, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier lead Clara and the Nutcracker Prince to the Land of Sweets and Kingdom of Snow, which are filled with seasonal wonder and splendor.
“You don’t have to be in a religious setting to feel uplifted by watching a performance of The Nutcracker,” Sager said. “It stirs your soul. People have told me it’s not Christmas without The Nutcracker.”
The ballet not only entertains audiences at the holidays but has a significant yearlong outreach through the Nutcracker Foundation, a nonprofit Sager established. She donates all profits from the performances to scholarships for the arts, for scenery, and for costumes.
“I wanted The Nutcracker to be a blessing to the community year-round,” Sager said.
Long after the holidays, when she least expects it, Sager hears from people who tell her how grateful they are for watching the ballet or dancing in it.
“In the grocery store, I’ve had people I don’t even know tell me they love to watch it. Dancers have told me years later they still remember their roles.”
Last year, not even the COVID pandemic could stop the annual performance. Sager filmed it and broadcast it on her studio website and at the Burley Theater.
“The students had been practicing for so long,” she said. “I wanted the community to still see them dance, but a public performance was prohibited.”
Last year, she also struggled with finding professional guest dancers willing to travel and perform the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. She contacted a friend of 30 years, Jennie Creer-King, who was her first guest dancer as the Sugar Plum Fairy. An award-winning dancer, instructor and choreographer, Creer-King is founder and president of the Central Utah Ballet and has provided dancers from her company.
This year’s performance will once again feature guest artists from Creer-King’s company.
“I still remember dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” Creer-King said. “I was a student at University of Utah at the time. It was such a great experience and wonderful production because Jennifer has such a strong connection with the community.”
According to Creer-King, The Nutcracker essentially kicks off the holiday season wherever it is performed.
“There are so many roles, you can start as a child and dance year after year,” she said. “It’s a family event with wonderful music and fosters an appreciation of the arts.”
Remembering the joy she felt as a child learning ballet, Sager opened her dance studio in 1976 when she settled in Burley after getting married. She wanted to share ballet-training techniques she had learned in her youth in London, England at the Royal Academy of Dance.
To provide the opportunity for as many children as possible to dance in The Nutcracker, Sager double casts each role.
“Since our first production, hundreds of local children have performed, making long-lasting holiday memories,” Sager said.
The 33rd performance, co-directed with Melissa Lynch, is scheduled December 10 at 7:30 p.m. and December 11 at 2 p.m. at King Fine Arts Center in Burley. ISI