‘Nutcracker’ a family, Lincoln tradition


Rachel Dowd, who plays Clara in “The Nutcracker,” laces her ballet shoes during a recent rehearsal.

Story, photo and video by Tori Grdina, NewsNetNebraska

For Rachel Dowd, performing in “The Nutcracker” has become a holiday tradition for her and her family. For Lincoln residents, it’s become an annual event and community tradition, too. And for all of them, it’s something that wouldn’t be possible without Shari True.

True has been involved with “The Nutcracker” for all of its 26 years of production in Lincoln and helped found the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company that performs the show every year. She’s also taught and coached Dowd through most of her dance career.

Dowd, a junior a Lincoln Southwest High School, is playing Clara in this year’s production of “The Nutcracker.” She’s been dancing for almost 15 years with True at her studio.

“I’ve seen her change from a little tiny girl who could barely skip and barely polka into a beautiful ballerina,” True said. “She’s a great performer. There are a lot of girls who can bourrée and pirouette, but you also have to be able to play a character, and Rachel’s very, very natural at that.”

Dowd has danced several parts in her 10 years of performing in the Nutcracker. Her sister, Elizabeth, played Clara 11 years ago in the production, and was taught by True as well.

“It’s fun to go on in her footsteps,” Dowd said. “It’s a family tradition. We’ve been involved for about 20 years. It’s my favorite time of year. My holiday season really wouldn’t be the same without it.”

For True, it was dancers like the Dowd sisters who made her want to bring the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company to Lincoln. After dancing in Los Angeles and with the Santa Monica Ballet when she was 18, True felt Lincoln needed something more to offer its young dancers.

“I saw what the kids out there were getting versus what the kids in Nebraska were getting,” True said. “They would be two, three and four ballets a year, and our kids were in none. They were in their recitals, which is great, that’s fine, but when you’re a ballet person you want more sometimes. I wanted our community kids to see a real ballet.”

When True was in college, she and her brother traveled to Omaha three times a week to be in Ballet Omaha’s production of “The Nutcracker.” In 1985, The Lincoln Community Playhouse decided to put on its own production that True joined and helped choreograph. After only two years, the Playhouse decided to replace it with another Christmas show, but True felt that “The Nutcracker” was something Lincoln needed.

“I just felt in my heart that we needed to keep ‘The Nutcracker’ going, and have a ballet company kids could be in that I didn’t have when I was growing up.”

True decided to start her own “baby ballet” that year with the help of a few parents and $500 of her own money. She put together her own production of “The Nutcracker” that consisted of about 20 dancers and was performed at Lincoln High School. But in the following few years, her “baby ballet” began to grow, and “The Nutcracker” eventually grew into a rather large Lincoln event.

“Every time I kept thinking, ‘What’s the next step?’” True asked. “We’d finally get backdrops, and I’d say, ‘OK, what’s the next step?’ A symphony. OK, next step. Let’s move to a real theater. We just kept going like that and it just unfolded to be much more than I ever intended it to.”

True had a fledgling ballet company on her hands, but a non-profit ballet company that had no one to pay her. She decided to start a studio of her own to support herself and her growing ballet company, offering mostly classical ballet and pointe classes.

“That was my job, that was what I did, and it also went hand-in-hand with raising kids to be in the show,” True said. “It was never really intended like that, but that’s how it became, that’s how it grew. Now it’s huge and just beautiful.”

The Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company now has a cast of 200 people and is performed at the Lied Center every December with the Nebraska Symphony Chamber Orchestra. While it’s become bigger than True ever imagined, it’s become everything she dreamed of bringing to Lincoln.

“It all started from me as a child in Lincoln, not getting that,” True said. “I wanted the next generation to have something. They’re very talented, like Rachel. If this had not been here for her, she’d have never become the ballerina that she is and danced the roles that she’s dancing.”

And Dowd agrees that being a part of the Lincoln Midwest Ballet Company and “The Nutcracker” has been exactly the kind of opportunity True hoped to provide dancers in Lincoln with.

“Being in ‘The Nutcracker’ has been a great experience for me,” Dowd said. “I feel like everyone works really hard and it’s a great way to show the community the talent of the young dancers in the company.”

While True’s glad to have started such a great community event in Lincoln, she’s also glad to have provided so many Lincoln dancers like Dowd with such a great platform to perform on.

“It’s more than just Rachel. There are tons of little kids that would never have gotten this opportunity,” True said. “I think it’s really special for Lincoln.”

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