It’s December, which means ballet aficionados are anticipating perennial holiday favorite Nutcracker. The Illinois Ballet is offering up an alternative to that tradition, however: The Juggler of Notre Dame. "It’s an old European story," said Illinois Ballet Artistic Director Mary Price Boday. "It takes place in France at Notre Dame, and it centers around a juggler who performs on the streets every day in hopes that someone will give him some money for his juggling. Because he lives on the streets, his clothes are very shabby. Many people in the town aren’t very nice to him and often make fun of him."

On Christmas Eve, the juggler, cold and dejected, discovers a church and goes inside to find warmth, she continued. "Once inside, he’s drawn to a bright light shining on a statue. It’s the most beautiful site he’s ever seen. Drawn closer, he sees beautiful gifts at the foot of the statue of the Virgin Mary. Earlier, the monks had placed these gifts at the foot of their adored statue. Having no gift to give, the juggler feels terrible until he comes up with an idea to juggle for the statue.

"He juggles with all of his passion and love, until, exhausted, he falls on the feet of the statue and dies. As the juggler falls upon the feet of the statue, the monks and people of the town come inside the church to admire their statue. Seeing the juggler there, they’re horrified that this beggar in his shabby clothes is at the foot of their beloved statue. Suddenly, a miraculous event occurs: the Virgin Mary moves. She blesses the juggler, as he’s given the greatest gift of all," Boday said.

In The Juggler, members of The Illinois Ballet perform choreography by Boday, who adapted the moves from Helen Gregory, one of Boday’s dance professors at the University of Oklahoma. In tribute to Gregory, Boday kept the story alive in her original choreography.

Audience members who attend The Juggler of Notre Dame will get a bonus: a performance by The Illinois Ballet of Les Sylphides. "I’ve staged Michael Fokine’s choreography of Les Sylphides a couple of times before coming to Peoria. It’s a beautiful and delicate ballet," she said.

Set to the music of Chopin, the first performance of Les Sylphides was in 1909 and was choreographed by Fokine, who was born in St. Petersburg in 1880 and graduated from the St. Petersburg Theater School. "He continued the trend started by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in the field of symphonic dance and developed the abstract, plotless ballet into a genre of its own," Boday explained. "Such ballet was structured according to the rules of music and choreography and used both classical and character dance. In contrast to Petipa’s ballets, relationships between good and evil in Fokine’s productions weren’t governed by fairy tale laws. In his ballets, life was presented as a bacchanalia in which the themes of loneliness, disillusionment, and doomed passions struck a discordant note. Reality turned out to be infernal and destructive, while beauty was deceptive and unattainable. However, the pursuit of a dream signified the moment of the human spirit’s predominance over the transience of existence."

Creating Dance in Central Illinois

The Illinois Ballet was formed five years ago by Boday and Karen Ingersoll as Central Illinois Ballet. Their goal was to create a professional dance company that resided in Peoria and toured locally and nationally. "We secured dance space in a downtown warehouse and began teaching a variety of classes and planning performances. In November 1999, our company was born," Boday said.

In addition to its goal to elevate the art of dance, The Illinois Ballet has always made an effort to expand public awareness of dance and provide increased professional opportunities for dancers, she said. "Since its inception, the dance company has featured a distinguished company of highly trained, technically accomplished dancers. In its first year, the company presented a spring and fall season of repertory productions, performed lecture demonstrations at four schools, performed with the Civic Chorale and Peoria Municipal Band, conducted a summer workshop, and toured in Pennsylvania."

During the company’s second year, it became even more ambitious. "We expanded to two studios and presented two main stage productions of Holiday Spectacular and the ever popular Rock Ballet, with additional performances of each for area schools, making dance accessible to all economic backgrounds (for children and schools on the school lunch program, the cost was $1 per child). Additionally, we performed Appalachian Spring with the Peoria Youth Symphony, performed with the Peoria Municipal Band, and the summer workshop intensive expanded in length and brought Artistic Advisor David Howard for a dance workshop. Howard is the most-sought after teacher and coach in the world," Boday explained.

The third year brought the name change from Central Illinois Ballet to The Illinois Ballet and an expanded schedule. "Collaborating with the renowned Paul Adams for an original composition, I choreographed The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. We also choreographed and performed two operas with Opera Illinois: Rigoletto and Hansel and Gretel. The company performed "Gloria" with the Bradley University Chorale, The Power of Dance, "Tenebrae" at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, danced with The Peoria Municipal Band, and presented the summer intensive," she said.

Last year, The Illinois Ballet performed Coppelia, A Christmas Special, "The Illinois Ballet in Concert," Rock Ballet 2003, "Liebeslieder Waltzes" with the Bradley University Chorale, and Il Trovatore and Don Giovanni with Opera Illinois. It also performed at the Peoria Civic Center’s 20th anniversary celebration and at the Shoppes at Grand Prairie.

Currently in its fifth year, the company is continuing its tradition of excellence. "We started this year performing in a benefit for James Ratton. The company of 10 hired professionals, along with members of The National Ballet of Panama, then performed the world-renowned ballet classic Sleeping Beauty November 15, Mission in Dance Chicago on November 19, and next up is The Juggler of Notre Dame. The rest of the season includes Rock Ballet 2004 March 20, and in June, the company is going to Panama City to perform with The National Ballet Panama," Boday said.

Because it’s a professional company, The Illinois Ballet hires professional dancers from all over the globe. Dancers hired for this year’s 22-week season include: Elizabeth Curtin, Missouri; Josh Ferchau, Colorado; Maria Eugenia Hererra, Panama; Nicole Hess, Ohio; Brenda Langan, Chicago; Guillermo Leyva, Cuba; Nicole Miller, England; Yuka Morita, Japan; Melissa Smith, Arizona; Heather Thompson, Florida; and Elizabeth Troxler, Pennsylvania.

Boday’s own career has spanned more than 30 years, including national and international performances and teaching. Her students have benefited from her experience, some of them going on to join companies such as the Joffrey Ballet, Harkness Ballet, Paul Taylor Dance Company, the Broadway touring show of 42nd Street, Geneva Ballet, Dayton Contemporary Dance Company, Columbia City Ballet, State Ballet of Missouri, St. Gallen Stadt Theater Ballet, Lake Erie Ballet, Mary Anthony Company, Pacific Northwest Ballet, and Santa Barbara Ballet.

During her five years at the helm of The Illinois Ballet, Boday has made a point of choreographing and making guest appearances around the country. Some of her projects have included work with Spectrum Dance in Seattle; Mt. Hood Ballet Academy in Gresham, Ore., David Howard in Worcester, Mass., set the ballet, Coppelia, on the Texarkana Ballet; and taught at Knox College and Oklahoma City University, to mention a few.

Closer to home, Boday created the opportunity for physically challenged individuals to participate in the art form she loves. "I have a program called Special Dance at the Central Illinois Dance School, the official school of The Illinois Ballet. This class is for children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, etc. Our special dancers performed with the company in A Christmas Special last December and performed in Snow White for the school recital, at the Shoppes at Grand Prairie, and at the Jim Ratton Benefit. Special Dancer Pammy Kendall received a $200 Special Dance Scholarship from the National Society of Arts & Letters in the fall of 2002," Boday said.

The Juggler of Notre Dame, with bonus performance of Les Sylphides, takes place at 7:30 p.m., December 12 and 13, at Dingeldine Music Center. AA!