Monthly Archives: December 2015

A Merry Nutcracker

Flowers Dew Drop

Grace Hodges (C) as the Dew Drop Fairy,  wth Ellen McCullough (L in yellow) and Geraldine Leech (R in orange) as the Flowers

An unseasonably warm December morning lent an air of merriment to Swarthmore this Saturday. The sky was topaz blue and the sun was shining. Even Charlie, the venerable white horse who pulls the carriage for Swarthmore’s Home for the Holidays celebration, seemed to have a spring in his step. Though local shops displayed helpful signs reminding us how many days until Hanukah and Christmas, no one actually seemed to feel pressed for time.

Lucky ticket-holders to Lori Ardis Ballet Company’s performance of The Nutcracker exemplified the holiday mood, nodding to each other with a twinkle of anticipation in their eyes.

Once inside, we were greeted by Mrs. Ardis herself. Just before the performance began, she stepped into the spotlight to share a joyful explanation of what we were about to see, so that even the smallest audience members were informed and enthralled. Then the lights went down, and the Christmas tree was illuminated.

At LABC, we are regularly spoiled with beautiful technique and clever choreography. This company has proven again and again how resilient they are, how well they work together as a team, how much endurance and discipline they have. From the tiniest Ginger to the Sugar Plum Fairy, we have come to expect nothing short of perfection.

But the wonder of The Nutcracker is in the heart as well as the feet.

Choreographers Lori Ardis and Amber Flynn keep the joy in The Nutcracker by re-choreographing the entire ballet to take advantage of the unique talents of the dancers playing the roles.

Every. Single. Year.

Their herculean effort paid off in spades this season, with a performance filled with excitement, wonder and humor. (Would you like to learn more about this mother-daughter choreography team? Click here for a short interview!)

From the first note of the party scene, this year’s production capitalized on the personalities of the dancers. First act highlights were William Hodges as Drosselmeyer – leaping and swirling his cape, even breaking the fourth wall at times to bring the audience into the joke, the Gypsy dance performed with towering energy by (real life siblings) Will and Ellen McCullough, and Anna Si’s hilarious performance as the mother of seven small and very energetic children.

Mia Davis is a dancer I’ve watched grow up on the stage of LABC. Her genuine smile has warmed the stage from the corps throughout the last five productions I’ve had the pleasure to see. It was a joy to watch her wear Clara’s iconic pink dress. Mia’s Clara was curious, kind and played younger than other dancers we’ve seen in the role in recent years. Nowhere was this more apparent than in her quite realistic interactions with her younger sister (the Fritz role) danced with gusto by Elizabeth Si. The two had great chemistry and had the audience tittering on more than one occasion.

And Kevin Gardner was the perfect Nutcracker prince to suit her. In spite of his obvious athleticism and the extraordinary physical demands of the fight scene with half a dozen very energetic mice, followed immediately by a pas de deux with a series of complicated lifts, Gardner’s performance appeared to be effortless. His kind smiles for Clara were sigh-worthy, and his bearing was never anything short of regal.

Act Two found Clara and the Nutcracker Prince regaled with dances from all over the Land of Sweets. Each dance was spectacular, and the members of the audience found themselves smiling and leaning forward, until, that is, the Arabian dance.

Anni Si and Donn Guthrie took the stage with so much power the air went out of the room. These two have partnered many times before and their trust in each other was exploited to the breaking point in this sumptuously crafted pas de deux. The power struggle played out between them was palpable, and just as a deft lift had our hearts in our mouths, with Si suspended nearly at the ceiling, Guthrie would remove one hand, holding her aloft with the other, as if the two had only been toying with us all along and he could have lifted her with his mind.

When they left the stage, my heart ached with sympathy for the dancer who would have to perform afterward.

I should have known that Ardis and Flynn would hand those dancers the keys to the kingdom. And Will McCollough and the very expressive Eleanor Runiewicz knew just what to do with them. Assisted by four small sheep, McCollough and Runiewicz had us all in hysterics as the shepherdess lost and found her sheep again and again to everyone’s delight.

Mother Ginger, played with panache by Denise Hodges, delighted us when her hoard of adorable children burst from her skirt and danced with such vivacity they left us all cheering for more.

The lovely Maia Virgil danced the Sugar Plum Fairy with a gentle sweetness that was appropriate to her character’s name. Cavalier, Donn Guthrie, partnered her and the two were absolutely charming to watch.

All the costumes worn in the production are made by staff and volunteers. The costuming triumph of the night was the Flower dance. Gorgeous swathes of tulle were made into wing-like petals that floated and sank as if they were dancers in their own right. Lucky Flower dancers Geraldine Leech, Ellen McCullough, Anna Si and Linnea Si wore the glamorous smiles to match. And among them, Grace Hodges, as the Dew Drop Fairy, sparkled and flew. Grace has always been a force of nature on the LABC stage. It was thrilling to see her in this exciting role.

When the lights came up and it was all over, the audience lingered – searching for the right thing to say to each other, to Mrs. Ardis who was there to bid us farewell, and to ourselves.

But I believe our universal sentiment was summed up in the words of one small attendant, who simply whispered to herself, “Wow.

Tickets for this year’s The Nutcracker are completely sold out. If you’d like advice on how to score those tickets for next year, be sure to check out my interview with the choreographers here for tips!

Did seeing the Nutcracker at LABC make YOU want to dance too? Swarthmore Ballet Theatre, LABC’s training ground, offers classes for children and adults. Stop by their website here to learn more.

Full disclosure: I’m the mom of two Gingers and a Mouse/Party Child/Page in this production. Click here to find out what it’s like to have a child enrolled in ballet classes or in a production.

Mia & Kevin

Kevin Gardner and Mia Davis were exquisite as the Nutcracker Prince and Clara


Anna Si (aloft) with Donn Guthrie performing the Arabian

Candy Canes

L to R Amelia Dunning, Julia Friel (in split), Charlotte Caywood (standing) Caroline Grogan (photo by Quinn Guthrie)


Clara's sister

Elizabeth Si, Ava Manaker, Wilhemena Mcelhenney. (photo by Quinn Guthrie)


Kevin Gardner (photo by Doug McCullough)


Eleanor Runiewicz, Will McCullough (photo by Doug McCullough)


The Whole Cast (photo by Quinn Guthrie)

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An Interview with LABC Choreographers

An Interview with Lori Ardis Ballet Company’s Mother-Daughter Choreography Team


Mrs. Ardis  Mrs. Flynn with her grandson

Pictured above are Mrs. Ardis (L) and her daughter Mrs. Flynn (R) holding her grandson.

CP: Lori Ardis and Amber Flynn, you’ve been creating ballets on young dancers for many years, when was your first Swarthmore Nutcracker?

LORI: It was in 1993.

CP: That’s a LOT of Nutcrackers! The performances I’ve seen have always gone very smoothly. But I’m sure in that many years, one or two things must have gone wrong? Are there any catastrophes, or funny stories you’d like to share with us?

AMBER: There are always small repairs and fixes happening in the background.

LORI: There was that year the Christmas tree fell…

AMBER: Yes, one performance, many years ago, the magical growing tree fell. As always the show went on, though with a little added excitement!

CP: I can imagine! I know there are several ballet families involved in your productions, the standouts being your own, and the Hodges, of whom I saw FOUR in this production! Do you have any funny stories about siblings? I’m especially curious to hear more about Ellen and William McCullough who dance the Gypsy pas de deux in the first act.

LORI: Actually, Carrie, you saw FIVE Hodges: Grace age 14, Rose age 12, Lillian age 8, Billy is their Father, and Denise is their Mother!

AMBER- Ellen began dancing when she was a little girl. Will just started dancing a year and a half ago.

LORI- Ellen didn’t want her brother to dance. It was “her thing”. I told her he would make a nice tall partner for her and she relented.

AMBER-Now they work very well together and seem to really enjoy dancing with each other! Ellen and Will’s father Doug runs the lights, giving each dance an enchanting glow. He also takes captivating photographs for the programs and the posters.

CP: The acting in this year’s production really stood out. Was there a special focus on acting in rehearsals this year, or is this a natural progression of the dancers as they become more comfortable on stage?

LORI- Starting with the Gingers I asked them to “perform” and showed them what that meant. I was astounded at their response! I told Amber and she also was impressed.

We had always asked the dancers to tell the story but the right word to use apparently is “perform”.

AMBER- Yes, there is always an emphasis on expression with and through technique in class but dancing as part of a story helps the dancers to use their imagination and see how important each part is to the entire show.

CP: We all know that you are a mother and daughter who co-choreograph. What is your process like? Do you usually share a vision of how the production should be or are there passionate arguments? Do you think being a mother-daughter team makes it easier to work together, or harder? (For anyone who hasn’t seen LABC’s Nutcracker, it’s important to know that although the music and story are, of course, the same, the choreography is very different from year to year.)

LORI- We do not argue. We get along as my mother said like “Boots & Shoes”. We talk things over, usually while we are moving around, and spark each other’s ideas. We also work separately e.g. Waltz of the Flowers was all Amber. She made and dyed the costumes and choreographed all of it!  Shepherd & Shepherdess with Lambs was all mine. The story line in the first Act is all Amber. I contributed Gypsy and the adults dancing & Amber took my choreography for Soldiers and embellished it. We did Mice together.

AMBER- It is such a joy to work with my mother on something that we both love and care about so much.

CP: A minor town controversy surrounding LABT is the almost indecent rate at which performances sell out. If someone wants to score those coveted seats for the spring ballet, what do they need to do to stay informed about ticket sales?

LORI- Email and ask in early November for The Nutcracker and early May for the June Ballet.

CP: I know you’ve both performed in The Nutcracker yourselves. What were your favorite roles to dance and why?

LORI- “Snow” I love to jump and swirl around.

AMBER- Arabian, for the dramatic feeling and Flowers for the joy of dancing to such a beautiful waltz. I loved being a Ginger. It is so exciting to dance in The Nutcracker as a little child.  Mother Ginger is also a fun part because she is so proud of all of her wonderful children!

CP: I met your grandson over intermission lemonade today, Amber. That would make him your great-grandson, Lori. If the rest of us want to have your ageless energy, what should we do? What is your super power?

LORI- I have a great family both by blood and by Swarthmore Ballet Theatre. It makes me incurably happy!

AMBER- Dance! Dancing around the house or in ballet class is wonderful for your whole self. Ballet gives you strength, stamina and the joy of artistic expression. We have students that love to dance, boys and girls, men and women, from the age of 3 all the way into their eighties. My mother, Lori sets the tone at Swarthmore Ballet where we challenge students to balance elegance, strength, accuracy, musicality and a transcendent joy through dance!

CP: Thank you so much for talking with us today, Lori and Amber!

If anyone reading this interview would like to learn more about attending classes at Swarthmore Ballet Theatre (the training ground for LABC) please visit their website at

Mrs. Ardis performing in 1952

Mrs. Ardis performs in 1952 (photo courtesy of Swarthmore Ballet Theatre)



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Scenes from around Swarthmore

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December 10, 2015 · 5:01 pm