Thanks to a Russian dance troupe with a snarky wardrobe mistress several decades ago, Helena’s very own “Nutcracker” production was born at Premiere Dance Company.
This weekend it celebrates its 25th anniversary.
In addition to 2 p.m. dance performances Saturday, Dec. 17, and Sunday, Dec. 18, at the Helena Civic Center, there’s also a banquet honoring artistic director Charlene White Saturday night at Carroll College.
White, a Rhode Island transplant, arrived in Helena in 1985 -- for what she thought was going to be several months of teaching dance for Deanna Brady.
“I was 22 years old,” White said, and she was intent on starting her own dance studio in Rhode Island.
White recalls her first thought when her mom told her someone from Montana called to discuss a dance job with the Helena Movement Center:“I’m not going to Montana.”
But then, White thought again. “It’s nine months. Why not? I’ll just go on this adventure out West.”
And quite an adventure it has been.
“I arrived here in August. One of the first places they took me to was the ice cream parlor,” which is now the home of the Creative Arts Center and Premiere Dance Company.
“As soon as I got off the plane, I was just ‘Oh my gosh --look at those mountains.’ ... I think falling in love with Montana was almost instantaneous.”
In 1987, White launched the Creative Arts Center and Premiere Dance Company.
During those early years, her dancers worked with visiting dance troupes who performed “The Nutcracker.” Typically, it was with the Eugene Oregon ballet company, she said, and all ran smoothly. They picked the dancers and would leave behind a teacher to work with White’s students to ready them for the performance.
But one fateful year, a different company arrived to do “The Nutcracker,” and all was not well in ballet land.
White arrived at the Civic Center the afternoon of the performance to see her young dancers in tears because they’d been told they couldn’t dance and that the costumes didn’t fit them.
“It was a crazy disaster,” White said. She ran back to her studio and grabbed whatever costumes she had to outfit her dancers.
That was the turning point for White and the board deciding, “I think we could do it!”
She thinks she typically had a cast of 50 to 60 students in the early days; since then, it has averaged around 75.
“This year is record. We have 98 people in it,” White said.
Likewise the number of her ballet students went from perhaps 30 to anywhere from 130 to 150.
A lot of ballet teachers measure their success on how many of their dancers go on to dance professionally; however, she has measured her success by “all the little obstacles they (her students) have broken through over the years.”
Whether it’s a confidence issue or physical issues that dancers need to grow through, she wants them to come to the understanding, “that if I show up and give it my best and do my job then that’s all that should be asked of me. I expected them to always give me their best.”
One of White’s very early dancers was Lindsey Brown, who played the part of Clara in 1993 and ‘94 and was the Sugar Plum Fairy in 1995.
White would wind up teaching all nine girls in her family, said Brown, who has gone on to be a dance teacher in Salt Lake City.
“She gave me an amazing gift,” said Brown, who danced for 11 years with White. “She allowed us to be ourselves up on stage and she gave us a lot of freedom to just love it.”
For other studios, “it can be all about looking your best,” she said. There can be a lot of push on dancers. “If you can’t do this step then you’re nothing to me. That’s sometimes the attitude.”
“She always stood in the wing and smiled,” said Brown. “She just kept her smile all through the show.”
“There’s so much pressure to look good for the director,” said Brown of many dance studios. For White, “It’s never about her looking good or her pride.
“I see so many people not able to let it go,” she said of performances. But that’s one thing she’s learned from White, “Once it’s showtime, I let it all go.”
“I was grateful I had her for a teacher.”
Another dancer who is happy she studied with White is Jamie Wollenberg, who is returning from Tampa, Florida, to dance in “The Nutcracker” as part of a Russian dancer duo.
Wollenberg had left a different dance studio where she wasn’t happy, and later joined White at Premiere Dance Company after seeing “The Nutcracker.” She wound up dancing only one season in “The Nutcracker.”
Wollenberg went on to earn a dance degree at the University of Idaho, captain the dance team there and then go into professional dancing, which has taken her to 40 states and many far-flung places in the world.
She now choreographs, teaches and judges dance, a multi-faceted career that has her flying places just about every weekend. She also does physical therapy.
“It’s amazing in that short time, she transformed me and guided me into my life,” she said, adding that it had opened up her career for her.
“She is so put together. She’s never wavering. I think she truly is dedicated to her students -- making them well rounded individuals.”
This is a quality that attracted parent and now grandparent Suzi Kopec, whose daughter and three of her grandchildren have danced in “The Nutcracker.”
“She is an incredible dance instructor. She pulls out the best in her students,” Kopec said. “It’s serious dance, but she also makes it fun.”
Her daughter didn’t go on to dance professionally, but several generations of the family have learned to love to dance.
“I’ve known Charlene for so many years,” said Kopec. “I adore her. She’s a wonderful teacher. She’s a wonderful person. She’s a wonderful inspiration for these kids.”