Snow Queen Ashley Rook rehearses a scene with Clara, played by Brittany Morris, and Adrian Ptacek as the Nutcracker Prince. (Dick Kettlewell/Journal staff)

RAPID CITY - As the madness and merriment of the holiday season descends on us all, take time amid the busyness to enjoy a beautiful dream.

Black Hills Dance Theatre will present the classic Christmas fairy tale "The Nutcracker" on Saturday and Sunday, Nov. 26 and 27, at Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. The story of Clara, a little girl whose magical dream transports her to an enchanted kingdom, is a familiar holiday delight. But BHDT's particular retelling of the beloved tale has been carefully crafted to showcase the talents of performers throughout the Black Hills.

BHDT hired Matthew Keefe of Minneapolis, a professional dancer, teacher and choreographer of more than 40 ballets, to create this year's version of "The Nutcracker."

"The Nutcracker" will feature dancers from throughout the Black Hills.

Because cast members range in age from 6 to high school age - plus a few diversely talented adults - Keefe worked to develop roles to suit each cast member's abilities. Some cast members have little or no dance training, so they may scamper across stage as baby mice, star as angels or appear as guests at the Christmas party that opens the ballet, he said

Other cast members will reveal some surprising talents.

Mother Ginger, for instance, a maternal - and exceptionally tall - character in the Kingdom of Sweets, is not at all what she appears to be. Behind the costume will be Larry Kurtz, whose day job is drywall and painting, Keefe said.

"He is one of the best stilt walkers I have ever seen," Keefe said, making him perfect for the role as the oversized matron.

Still others are learning to fence to prepare for their battle with the Rat King. Local martial arts instructor Joel Bielstein will make a special appearance - with sabers - as an Arabian princess' guard, Keefe said.

The production will feature special appearances by Keefe and his wife, professional dancer Brittany Fridenstine, in the roles of the Sugar Plum Cavalier and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Well-known local residents Bruce Rampelberg and Helene Duhamel will star as Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum, who host the Christmas Eve party at which their daughter, Clara, receives the gifts of a nutcracker and a dream.

Amid the swordplay, martial arts and magic, Keefe has added comic relief designed to make the whole show more fun - and to tone down the scariness of scenes such as the combat between the Nutcracker and the Rat King - for all ages.

"We want it to be family fare. It (is a story) about kids and dreams and holidays and magic and all of that," Keefe said. "It's a perfect kick-off for the holiday season."

Since rehearsals began Sept. 26, the cast of 117 - plus dozens of volunteers - have been working six days a week to prepare for their upcoming performances, Keefe said.

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"You're going to see your community on stage … friends from school, family members," Keefe said. "There is something (exciting) about seeing people you know on stage. There's no substitute for that."

Keefe has been a professional dancer since 1989, performing with ballet companies throughout the United States. He also created numerous community outreach projects and taught at various universities and dance schools. Such a diverse career has given Keefe opportunities to work with dancers in communities throughout the United States. Keefe has also been visiting Rapid City since 2000 to work with BHDT. Keefe praised BHDT and the Black Hills residents for the support they provide for the local dance community.

Giving the area's budding dancers the chance to perform in a production staged in a professional venue such as Rushmore Plaza Civic Center is a uncommon opportunity, Keefe said - and a delight for him to be able to create a show for the dancers.

"As a choreographer, you don't pass up an opportunity like this," he said.

Keefe praised the commitment and help he has received from BHDT, the cast, crew and volunteers who have worked to put on this show.

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"For (Rapid City's) size and location, you (have) a very rich group of local young dancers."

For Keefe, being able to use his talents as a dancer, teacher and choreographer in "The Nutcracker" in a community so supportive of its dancers is a joy.

"I feel very blessed," Keefe said. "I feel like the luckiest guy on Earth."

If you go

- What: Black Hills Dance Theatre presents "The Nutcracker."

- When: 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 26 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27.

- Where: Rushmore Plaza Civic Center theater.

- Admission: $18.75 for adults, $8.75 for children. Call 394-4111 or 1-800-GOTMINE.

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