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Ballet school has Midwest on its toes

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John Greenwood

Participants of the Cassandra Manning Ballet Theatre practice a routine just prior to a performance at Quad City Arts recently.

ROCK ISLAND -- Progress has become a byword at the Cassandra Manning Ballet Theatre, the performance outlet for the City Center School of the Performing Arts in downtown Rock Island.

``We've made huge strides in 1997, and 1998 promises to be another landmark year,'' said Joedy Cook, director of the school.

The CMBT performs three times a year in the local area -- ``Dances of the Heart,'' a Valentine program is held in February; ``Ballet Under the Stars,'' free performances held outdoors in the classic theater at Lincoln Park in July; and ``The Nutcracker,'' the annual holiday program held in December. Both ``Dances of the Heart'' and ``Nutcracker'' are held in the Capitol Theatre in Davenport.

``Last December, we toured for the first time with our production of `The Nutcracker' and it was an enormous success,'' Ms. Cook said.

The performances, which were held Dec. 13-14 in a new state-of-the-art theater in Oscaloosa, Iowa, was 85 percent full the first night and sold out the second night.

``It was a wonderful experience. We had such a great time and the standing ovations were phenomenal,'' she said. ``We've been asked to make this an annual holiday event and we're hearing from other theaters around the Midwest who heard of our success.''

Last summer also brought accolades for the ballet school. A summer program brought in Luis Fuentes, ballet master for the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago. ``Luis was only here for two days, but had such an impact on the dancers,'' Ms. Cook said. ``He loved it here and said he so enjoyed the intimacy of working with each dancer individually. It was so successful, he'll be returning next summer for an entire week.''

Another special instructor brought in for the summer program was Randy Neusom, chair of the Northern Illinois University dance department and a dancer with Ballet Ireland. Mr. Neusom taught ballet and variation classes to City Centers' students.

The success of the summer program was offset by a major change in personnel. Susan Snider, co-founder and artistic director of the school and ballet company, moved from the area in mid-summer.

``I had to hire a new artistic director in a matter of weeks and was fortunate to find Johanne Jakhelin who is originally from Norway,'' she said. ``She is extremely talented and has choreographed a new ballet that will be highlighted in our February performance.''

The next performance of the CMBT will be ``Dances of the Heart'' on Feb. 28 at the Capitol Theatre. The company's dancers will be joined by Matthew Keefe and Sara Lenz from the University of Iowa, Jeff Diehl and Jill Van Acker with the Northern Dance Theatre, dancers from The Vine Street Ballet II from Des Moines and Xavi Pont and Kimberlyn Cook, principal dancers with the Ballet Arkansas.

``What is so extraordinary about this year's performance is we'll be featuring former dance students who will be returning as dance majors and professional dancers,'' Ms. Cook said. ``They grew up here and studied here when they were little children with hair in their eyes. Now they're coming back as professional adults. This is the turnaround for us as a school. This is the payoff.''

They will be again offering for the third year their two free evenings of ballet in the classic theater at Lincoln Park as ``Ballet Under the Stars.'' ``This is two different programs on two weekends free to the public. We perform for 1,000 people each weekend.''

Summer sounds under the oak trees, classic ballet as well as original choreography.

Mr. Fuentes will return again this year and a principal dancer.

-- By Lisa Mohr (February 9, 1998)

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