Dancing Into Battle

Evana Vrhovac prepares for her performance in “The Nutcracker”


Madi Hermeyer

Junior Evana Vrhovac dances in her pointe shoes while practicing for “The Nutcracker.” Vrhovac dances with the St. Louis Ballet Company which has an adjacent professional company. Their production of “The Nutcracker” dazzles dozens of audience members every year.

Dozens of bright lights illuminate her as she twirls, leaps and spins across the stage. The sound of the music blares through her ears as she works through the moves she’s spent hours pouring her heart and soul into. The rush is exhilarating. To the audience, her movements are effortless, almost as if she were floating across the stage. As junior Evana Vrhovac exits the stage after her scene, she smiles knowing that the months of practice she has dedicated to this performance were successful. 

Vrhovac has been dancing since she was four years old. This past year, she left her previous studio and joined the Saint Louis Ballet Company to pursue more advanced ballet training. For the past few months, the Saint Louis Ballet Company has been working on their production of the classic ballet, “The Nutcracker,” in which Vrhovac will play a blue soldier in the battle scene. Though this is not her first time performing in a production of “The Nutcracker,” this is her first time performing in a production with her current studio.

“While this is the first time I have done Nutcracker with Saint Louis Ballet, I have done a production of Nutcracker with my previous studio, Dayspring Arts and Education,” Vrhovac explained. “And while this time around I have less of a responsibility performing-wise as the company is much larger [and] there are more performances so there’s more of a time responsibility when it comes to shows.”

Currently, Vrhovac dances about 9 hours and 15 minutes a week with about half an hour dedicated to Nutcracker rehearsals alone. As the shows draw closer, though, Vrhovac is being confronted by the reality of her busy schedule. The shows will not only take place in the evenings, but during school hours as well.

 “There are 11 shows in total and some of them are right after school ends and others are at night or squarely during school,” Vrhovac said. “So I will have to either leave early or tell my teachers ahead of time to let them know I won’t be there that day. Even though having finals this year after winter break will be interesting, it works out amazingly so that I don’t have to make up any finals.”

Ms. CiCi Houston Sudholt is the rehearsal director for the Saint Louis Ballet Company and has been studying dance since 1985. As a child, Sudholt trained at a professional level including five-week-long summer intensives across the country at the age of nine and 20 hours of dance classes a week starting at age 11. Thus, she knows firsthand the level of dedication her students have to put into during classes and in preparation for performances.

“It has been said that ballet resembles religion, in that it permeates everything that you do. You cannot just be a dancer for one hour of the day,” Sudholt stated. “All of your decisions are wrapped around this lifestyle. You choose nutritious foods, you choose to sleep rather than binge-watch something, your summer travel schedule is planned around opportunities in studying abroad…everything. During a heavy performance time, like Nutcracker season, you save every spare minute for sleeping, studying, and tending to sore muscles.”

“Nutcracker season” is when a dance studio or company puts on a production of the infamous holiday classic, “The Nutcracker.” The rehearsal process, which takes months, can start out a little insane, but as everyone comes together and each piece of the ballet is put into place, the process becomes fun and thrilling.

“At first [rehearsals] can feel a little chaotic, because so many people are learning their individual parts at the same time. Rehearsals are also a lot of fun because in The Nutcracker there are a lot of opportunities to act while you dance,” Sudholt explained. “You start to see people’s personalities, their sense of humor, and their humanity. In our production, students get to perform alongside the professional company members, so that can be especially exciting for them.”

Based on her own experiences dealing with the vigorous schedules often associated with dance, Sudholt understands that mental health is very important. To deal with this, she likes to encourage her students to take care of themselves both mentally and physically, especially when they are in the process of putting together a show like “The Nutcracker.”

“Sometimes self-care during a busy time comes down to basics: eat well, sleep a lot, take a hot bath,” Sudholt explained. “I remind them that while they are burning extra calories, they need to take in more calories. It’s hard to sleep after the adrenaline rush of [a] live performance, so it is common for our students to bring a blanket to the theater and nap between shows. As a teacher, I keep mental health resources available, but generally, the students are at their happiest at the theater, doing what they love.”

Junior Evana Vrhovac and senior Sophia Lawson’s daily schedules are written out on paper. Both students dedicate several hours a day to dance in the forms of classes, rehearsals and stretching. During periods when there is a show they are preparing for, their schedules only get more hectic. (Illustration by Sydney Tran)

Vrhovac has faced some struggles while dancing. Since “The Nutcracker” is such a staple story of the holiday season, sometimes it feels as though there is a lot to live up to so that the ballet continues to enchant audiences every holiday season.

“I absolutely think there is a bit of pressure, especially for those more in the spotlight to keep up the magic so to speak,” Vrhovac said. “Everyone, or at least me, just wants the kids and those in the crowd to feel how they did when they saw it the first time with all the effects and effortless dancing. To see it behind the scenes makes it feel more important to get it right so that the spirit isn’t ruined.”

However, one reason ballet dancers participate in long grueling hours of dance practice and months of rehearsals is to inspire others. Because one day, a child in the audience may be dancing in their own production of “The Nutcracker” on that very same stage.

“Before I came to Saint Louis Ballet, me and my family went to see ‘The Nutcracker’ at the Touhill a few times,” Vrhovac said. “We always loved it, especially the snowflakes, so it’s all full circle now that I get to be in the performance I loved as a kid.”