Tag Archives: dance

Divine Serpentine

October 14, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

While Dulcie Mueller has been performing since age 5 with a variety of castmates and collaborators, she finally found the perfect partner several years ago in a cold-hearted reptile. 

Mueller, who has a background in dance, performs under the stage name Dolce Vita with her seven-foot-long Colombian red-tailed boa constrictor, BlondieS. Good duos are built on a foundation of mutual love, respect, and trust, and Mueller and BlondieS have that in spades. Mueller has previously performed with other snakes, but when she met BlondieS—whom she calls “the coolest snake in Nebraska”—everything just clicked.   

“I opened up [the box she came in], put BlondieS on my shoulders, and that was it—we’ve been best friends ever since,” Mueller says. 

But long before BlondieS became the peanut butter to her jelly, the Lennon to her McCartney, the Thelma to her Louise, Mueller was fascinated with snakes. 

“I first developed an affinity for snakes through a famous magazine photo from the ’80s—maybe it was Vogue—where there’s a naked lady with a giant boa constrictor draped over her body covering her,” Mueller says. “I was a freshman in high school when I saw that picture and just thought it was so beautiful and sexy without showing anything inappropriate—but, at the same time, it was kind
of inappropriate.”

School administration was of the opinion that it was indeed inappropriate, ushering Mueller down to the principal’s office the day after she hung the photograph in her locker. But with that inspiring image, Mueller’s love of the divine serpent and subjects others might consider strange was solidified. 


Mueller considers herself more of a charming snake performer than a snake charmer. She does various themed performances at venues ranging from house parties to music clubs to retirement homes and has performed for audiences of all ages, customizing her routine and costuming for each occasion. 

Mueller carefully socialized BlondieS early on to get her used to people. Between that and BlondieS’ naturally affable demeanor, the non-venomous snake has never posed a threat to Mueller or any audience member. In fact, everywhere the pair goes, BlondieS is very popular. 

“Everybody that meets BlondieS—that actually looks at her or holds her—absolutely falls in love with her,” Mueller says. “People don’t expect her to look so pretty when they get up close or to be so chill.”

In addition to her good looks and calm demeanor, she says BlondieS is a natural-born performer. The pair rarely practice together, as Mueller opts to practice on her own, then improvise with BlondieS.    

“I work with her, she works with me, and we just make it happen,” Mueller says. “She’s great at posing. I’ll put her on somebody’s shoulders, and I can gently guide her head and let her know it’s picture time. Then she’ll hold her head facing the camera or slowly move it like a model would when she’s changing her angles a little bit for the camera. I got really lucky with her.”

On stage, the duo’s skin tones complement each other perfectly, and BlondieS drapes beautifully around Mueller’s curves. It’s an unusual, offbeat display—particularly for Midwest audiences—but it’s exquisite to behold; a unique performance that acts like kindling for the imagination’s fire, as all good art should. Mueller sometimes conceals BlondieS in a basket or other prop at the start of their performance and she says her favorite reaction is the audience’s collective gasp of delighted surprise when the giant snake is revealed.    

“I like opening minds and giving people an experience they wouldn’t normally get,” says Mueller, who is careful never to push those who are fearful of BlondieS to interact. 

While Mueller currently performs independently with BlondieS, she’s open to collaboration and partnerships if it’s the right fit. In the past she’s worked with groups like Spank Candy and OEAA-award winning band Bennie and the Gents, as well as other local burlesque groups.  

At home, BlondieS has her cage but acts more like a house cat or dog at times.

“I’ve had her in bed with us, just laying on the covers, curled up at our feet, looking at the TV, which is really funny,” Mueller says. “Of course, we can’t fall asleep like that. I’m not worried about her hurting anybody, I’m more worried about her getting stuck somewhere or getting too cold.” 

Mueller says she’s realized through the years that she’s always happiest when she’s actively performing, although she also loves her day job—working with adults with intellectual disabilities.  

“[Snake performing] is just a crazy, wild hobby that I feel especially compelled to pursue because there’s nobody else doing it, but at the same time it’s a hobby and I have a really important full-time job, so it’s hard to divide my energy the way I would like to. I need to have, like, 200 percent energy so I can put 100 percent into both the hobby and the job,” she says.

As for anyone who judges Mueller’s performances with BlondieS as weird, that doesn’t bother her one bit. In fact, she’s rightfully proud of her unique art and hopes to bring fringe ideas into the mainstream.  

“I do what I do because I want to and I don’t feel ashamed, nervous, or worried about what other people think about it,” she says. “That’s what I want the audience to get out of it too…for them to go home feeling that they can also do anything they want and that they shouldn’t be ashamed about the weird things they might want to do or think. I just want people to feel free because I definitely feel free in my choices as a performer.”  


For more information, visit omahasnake.com.

This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Encounter.

Madison Chizek’s Dancing Ambition

April 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Madison Chizek slips on her tap shoes, throws her light brown hair in a ponytail, and laughs at herself in the mirror.

“Ok, ready.”

Her mother, Dawn, pushes play. The song “Are You That Somebody?” fills the cold studio with warmth and energy. Or maybe it is Maddy’s moves. Her mint green and black shoes beat their own melody against the smooth vinyl floor. Maddy flips, flaps, and shuffles in dark leggings.

“The 30-second notes are like death, but I love it,” she says.

The words on her T-shirt are written backward so the reflection reads, “Get Out of the Mirror.” The saying is a reminder to be mindful and enjoy the moment.

This moment.

It shows when Maddy finishes, tired but exuberant.

Dance is her release.

“Whether overflowing with happiness or if I am just having a bad day, I can channel that into movements,” Maddy explains.

The 16-year old sophomore from Millard South High School runs through a contemporary routine next, this time barefoot, to “Unchained Melody.” She is past the point of embarrassment and will try anything thrown at her. Her body takes a beating whether it is bruises on her knees from spins, carpet burns, or blisters literally on top of blisters. Basically her feet are horrendous, but the teenager doesn’t let it stop her.

“Bruises are a sign of hard work, and scars are just cool,” Maddy says.

Her mother cheers her on from the sidelines, recording her performances. Dawn wanted her daughter to be physically active, so she enrolled her into dance classes when Maddy was just 3 years old. Maddy, though, crossed her arms and pouted in her pink tutu. 

“She hated it,” Dawn says laughing.

It was just too girly for a tomboy more interested in John Cena and skateboarding than pirouetting. Yet, Maddy continued attending Studio D and entering competitions. At 12, Maddy found her calling at Shockey Dance Co. in southwest Omaha. And workshops, such as Talent on Parade, drew the shy teenager into a world of opportunity. Maddy opened herself up to critiques, listening to tape after tape on ways to improve. Professionals and choreographers exposed her to intensive training at a young age. She met members from the reality television show So You Think You Can Dance, including tapper Gaby Diaz and hip-hopper Fik-Shun. She soon put in 20 hours a week or more, all with the intent of pushing herself to become better.

“It’s like a part-time job,” she jokes.

Maddy now wants to dance professionally.

Rachel Shockey—her contemporary, jazz, and musical theater coach—believes Maddy has a real shot at turning her dreams into reality.

“She is strong and determined,” Shockey says.

Maddy is versatile in many different forms, from ballet to tap to clogging and others. Her positive personality adds to the vibe in the studio where Maddy also teaches when she isn’t dancing.

Yet, it is a very competitive world. Maddy has to sometimes fight her way to the front. Luckily, she keeps getting noticed and pulled out. Her effort earned the attention of GoPro’s director Don Mirault. GoPro is an intense program, seven days in the summer, where dancers train, perform, and live like professionals.

Admission to the workshop is by invitation only—just 40 or 50 of the best from around the nation are selected. In October 2015, Maddy received the news she would be attending. But in December, Maddy complained about back pain, a sore throat, and a fever. She had a very extensive bout of mono. Her top grades plummeted since she could barely get through classes. Maddy just couldn’t function, let alone step on the dance floor. In practices, Maddy watched from the sidelines or marked (practicing the routines without full physical exertion). When her team went to nationals in St. Louis, she came down with strep throat, but still came in fourth place for her tap solo.   

Dawn had to make a difficult decision. She would not be sending her sick daughter to GoPro. Physically, she needed the recovery time, but mentally it took a toll.

“When I am angry or frustrated, I let it out when I dance. When I can’t do that, I get angrier and it feeds off itself,” Maddy explains.

Sitting on the sidelines gave her a new appreciation. Now, fully healed, Maddy has once again been invited not only to GoPro but to professionally choreograph Tokyo’s academy. And people can check her out at the Omaha Jazz and Tap Festival this summer.

Maddy does have fun whether hiking, playing board games, or hanging with her family. She squeezed time in last year to audition for the book Dance Across the USA. Jonathan Givens, formerly a master carpenter for the Oprah Winfrey Show, made it his mission to photograph dancers in all 50 states. Winfrey reminded Givens to photograph what he knew. The former performer and choreographer selected Maddy out of a pool of thousands to shoot stunning moves in gorgeous natural parks and settings.

His idea was to combine the beauty of dance with the beauty of America. Representing Nebraska, Maddie executed a contemporary jump in the cool waters of the Missouri National Recreational River and tapped on the Meridian Bridge.

But it isn’t about the trophies, books, or even the invites. Many times, Maddy will just listen to the music and let it move her.

“There is a genre of dance for every mood you are feeling. It is not a sport. Dance is an art. It’s what I love,” Maddy says.

Visit shockeydancecompany.com for more information about the dance company where Maddy Chizek performs and works.

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Laura Kirschenbaum

January 13, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Laura Kirshenbaum is a straight-A student, but it is not good grades that her mother talks about first when describing her daughter’s scholarly accomplishments.

“It’s comments that teachers make. It’s wonderful hearing about how she treats others and how she is respectful to teachers. They say that she’s an active listener in class, that she’s kind and courteous. That’s what I’m proud about,” Jennifer Tompkins Kirshenbaum says. “You may have it in your DNA that these things are easier than for other people, or you learn at a faster pace. That may be a gift with you, but what do you do with it? Some people may have an ego with it, but Laura doesn’t. She’s grateful for what she has and is highly motivated.”

Kirshenbaum, an eighth-grader at Alice Buffett Magnet Middle School in the Omaha Public School District, admits to being a fast learner but says her excellent grades in her honors classes don’t come effortlessly. “I work hard for that,” she says.

And she definitely prefers some subjects over others. “My top subject would definitely be math,” she says. “But I love science, too: chemistry, physics, and astronomy.”

Kirshenbaum has no shortcuts to academic success to share, she says. Being a good student means being diligent: finishing the assignments, completing the reading, following directions. It also helps to have good organizational skills that ensure she’s always prepared. “I turn homework in on time and I try to stay on top of things,” she explains. “I’m proud of that.”

She even enjoys learning outside of the classroom, watching informational YouTube channels in her spare time, and competing in multiple academic events like Quiz Bowl, Science Bowl, Math Counts, Academic Pentathlon, and Book Blasters. She has an artistic side, too, that brings some balance to student life—Kirshenbaum is active in dance (ballet, modern, and jazz) and plays the violin, even performing in the orchestra pit for Omaha Public Schools’ summer musical Peter Pan in 2016.

“I also do a lot of acting,” she adds. “I’ve been in a lot of the school plays, and I’ve done some community theater as well.”

She’s even managed to make time for volleyball and local volunteering at a food bank and a homeless shelter. Two summers ago, she was a classroom helper at Jackson Elementary School. Because she’s an honors student, she is also eligible to tutor fellow students. “I like being able to help others,” she says.

Kirshenbaum says her future plans absolutely include college, which her mother and father (Matt Kirshenbaum) like to hear. It may be a little early to start choosing a particular institution, but judging by the scholarly aptitude she’s demonstrated so far, it’s clear that she’s going to be able to take her pick of schools—and programs of study—upon graduation four years from now.

“I see myself becoming a chemist,” she says. “Or a college professor in math or science.”

This article was printed in the Winter 2017 edition of Family Guide.

Marian Fey

December 3, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Marian Fey moved around a lot as a kid. “I always say my mom’s a gypsy,” she says with a laugh.

But wherever she landed, one thing remained constant: dance.

“I’ve been dancing my whole life,” Fey says from her office Downtown. But it was sometime around middle school that dance crossed the line from “I don’t want to go,” she recalls, “to how many times a week can I go? It’s not enough.” By the time she was in high school, Fey danced four days a week and taught for another two. She danced all the way through college and then taught dance and choreography at the Omaha Academy of Ballet after she and her husband settled in Omaha. “I’ve had that connection my entire life to the arts,” she says. “I know personally the impact that arts education had on me and the engagement it caused me and my family to have towards education.”

Today, Fey is president of the Omaha Public Schools Board and heads the Nebraska Cultural Endowment, a fundraising position she assumed in May after leading the Nebraska Arts Council for a year. Before that, Fey founded The Artery, a small nonprofit that brought the New York-based Dancing Classrooms to Omaha. As she expands her scope, Fey hopes to provide opportunities for more children to get involved in the arts—inspiring their passions and encouraging them to engage in their education.

“There’s such a growing body of evidence about the impact that arts education can have on student achievement,” she says. Other than increasing engagement and parental involvement, sometimes the arts simply provide motivation, she says. “I think a lot of kids—and I wasn’t any different—need a reason some mornings to get up and go to school.” That goes for her kids, too. “For at least three of our children,” she says, “if they hadn’t had music to look forward to everyday at school, it could have been a tough sell getting them up and going.”

Fey’s interest in her children’s education led her to run for a seat on the OPS board in 2011, where she advocates for more arts education. Her tenure has been consumed by searches for superintendents and board structure changes. But despite the setbacks, she says she’s proud “OPS has never abandoned the arts.”

Add her role as elected official to fundraiser, and Fey’s transition from participant and teacher to behind-the-scenes mover and shaker is complete. At the Cultural Endowment, Fey travels around the state building relationships with senators and donors, and she manages a private fund that should reach $10 million (with its public match) by 2016. The fund provides grants to arts and humanities organizations around the state, impacting thousands of Nebraska kids.

It’s a new role, but Fey says she still feels like a teacher articulating ideas and concepts—just to a broader audience. And the passion that stirred her as a child—her reason to get up every morning—will never stand down.

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Party of Six

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

You might think that Shauntel and Delon Tobin of Northwest Omaha live for Tuesday nights. It is the only night of the week that their dance card is not full with their children’s practices or games. But the family actually enjoys the barely-controlled chaos, according to their daughter McKenzie, a fourth grader at Picotte Elementary.

“I don’t like staying at home. I’m just one of those people that likes to go about and travel a lot, “ says the 9-year-old.  McKenzie is a dancer. And her talent, and many evenings away at practice, has made her quite the star.

McKenzie and her 10-year-old sister Gabriella’s dance team recently won the Rainbow Dance Competition. Their prize? A once-in-a-lifetime “meet and greet” with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes in New York City in July. The sisters attend Next Step Dancing with Maren and practice multiple times a week.

McKenzie, who is nicknamed “Macaroni,” appreciates the support she gets from her parents taking her to lessons. “I feel encouraged when they do that. I’m happy,” she says.

Besides the two sisters, there is also 9-year-old New York Yankee fan Jaiden, who is Gabriella’s fraternal twin. He plays baseball and also loves playing games on his PlayStation. Finally, there’s little 3-year-old Madison, also a dancer and a “Doc McStuffins” fan.

“We are a close-knit family and I love it,” says their mother Shauntel, who works full-time as an insurance representative with Traveler’s Insurance.

Each day begins with Shauntel rising alone in the darkness at 4:30 a.m. so she can take her time getting ready. “I also make sure everybody’s stuff is lined up for the day,” she says.

The organized mom’s preparation involves laying the kids’ clothes out and making sure their backpacks are filled with the proper homework, any papers that need to be signed and their homework folders.

Next, she wakes up husband Delon, who works as a pharmacy technician at Alegent Creighton Lakeside Hospital. After he is ready to go, the couple wakes up all four kids at 6:30 a.m. They shower and get dressed, then head for breakfast. “While I’m cleaning, he’ll be doing breakfast for the kids. They love waffles and pancakes from scratch.”

Then, presto, it’s off they go for their day in their Diamond white Toyota Sienna, the minivan they consider a home-away from home. “We live in our car sometimes. We’re always running here or there,” Shauntel says.  Each kid has their own ipad and regularly plays educational games on the popular learning app Agnitus.

After Delon finishes his shift at 3:30 p.m., he picks up the kids from daycare and returns home for snacks and homework time. Then, bing-bang-boom, they are out the door again after Shauntel arrives home from work an hour later.

It is a 20-minute drive from their home in Northwest Omaha to Jaiden’s baseball practice across town at John G. Neihardt Elementary School.

Navigating the busy Omaha streets at rush hour requires patience and often, a deft turn of the radio dial. As a stress-breaker, the family all joins in on a country musical sing-along. “We just let everything go and everybody sings in the car.” The girls love Taylor Swift, while Shauntel prefers Jason Aldean and Rascal Flatts.

“Some nights you catch every red light and it’s like ‘ugh.’ Or you get stuck behind an accident. Then you have those nights where the traffic is perfect and you’ve caught almost every green light and you’re there in a little bit,” she says.

On nights that Jaiden has baseball practice, they first drop him off and then drop the girls off at dance. Next, begins a series of ping-pong-ish driving moves for daddy.  “Then Delon will leave and go pick up Jaiden and come back and watch the rest of the girls at dance,” Tobin says.

The day finally wraps up around 9 p.m. “There’s just no way we would get it all done if it wasn’t a team effort. So we come together and we pull it off, and it comes off every day,” she says.

The two met while they were employees of the Cracker Barrel in Chicago and were married in 2006. After visiting Shauntel’s family in Omaha, Delon knew he wanted to make Nebraska their home.

“The thing I will remember to this day is the first time at night when I saw all the stars. It was like a crystal, clear night. The air quality to me was superb. I looked at her and I said, ‘we’re going to have to move here.’”

Having lived on the edge of Chicago, an area prevalent with steel mills, the Tobins prefer the cleaner air available to them in Omaha, especially since their children also have asthma.  Given the opportunity to transfer with his job, they jumped at the chance.

As a dad, Delon loves being part of his kids’ myriad activities and seeing them progress by overcoming shyness. “To see them come out of their shell and just grow personally, that is amazing,” he says.

They also have a lot of support from Shauntel’s mother, Kim Konig and her husband Jeff, who attend all of Jaiden’s games. “They are very busy with four kids. I don’t know how they do it. It would drive me nuts,” Konig says.

For Shauntel and Delon, all the effort is time well spent. “We just want to make sure the kids have the best possible experience growing up. We don’t force them to do any of their activities. We just take them and support them,” Tobin says.

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Perpetual Motion

March 2, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jorge Ambriz has been moving his whole life—as a dancer, that is. The 36-year-old HR Manager of Omaha Steel Castings trained as a child in Mexican folkloric dance. No matter where he has lived, he always found a dance company so he could keep in motion. For the past seven years it’s been with University of Nebraska-Omaha’s The Moving Company, perhaps the area’s leading practitioners of 20th-century and contemporary dance.

But Ambriz isn’t affiliated with the university. A common misperception is that The Moving Company is for students only. The troupe, which was established in 1935 and is one of the oldest university dance companies in continuous existence in the world, draws people of all ages from all walks of life. “People usually think it’s for UNO,” remarks Ambriz. “That’s not the case. Out of 30-plus members, less than 10 are probably students.”

The company’s director, Josie Metal-Corbin, elaborates, “We are not a student organization. UNL has a dance major, UNK a dance minor. But what we have is a dance company. We are under the auspices of the College of Education and the School of Health, Physical Education, and Recreation. We’re very grateful that the College values what we do. We’ve been in existence off the blood, sweat, and tears of a lot of people.”

Dancers range in age from 18-50, and all members audition for a limited number of spaces. While some dancers are professional and maintain their own studios, others have included an ornithologist from the Henry Doorly Zoo and a CEO of a cement company. “The Moving Company welcomes all backgrounds of dance,” Ambriz explains. “It’s very diverse and has all ethnicities, all ages, and all levels of dance.”

Even though the company is dedicated to modern dance, choreographers incorporate other styles, such as swing and salsa. “One of the beautiful things about The Moving Company,” Ambriz says, “is that it opens the door to different dance.”

Performances take place at UNO, but the troupe also does site-specific choreography through its community outreach and partners with numerous area organizations. Over the years, performances have taken place at such venues as the Omaha Community Playhouse, the Durham Museum, Harrah’s Casino, area high schools, St. Cecilia’s Cathedral, and even in the Joslyn Art Museum’s fountain court. “We love to collaborate and do partnerships,” remarks Metal-Corbin. “It’s very fulfilling. Dancers move out into the world and
people interact.”

This spring The Moving Company will notably take to the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge to celebrate National Water Dance Day. “The movements deal with water,” says Metal-Corbin. “Our theme is drought, and we will move across 3,000 feet [of the bridge] with musicians and dancers.”

For Ambriz, these kinds of experiences are enriching. “The Moving Company,” he says, “allows us to use our full potential.”

Artists for Inclusion

February 24, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Iggy Sumnik is a noted artist. Bryan Allison is a young man with intellectual disabilities. Their worlds may seem galaxies apart, but the two have more in common than one might suspect. Both share a love of art, and both would appear to live by the same simple philosophy.

“I like to approach each new day as if I were going for a walk,” says Sumnik, a ceramic artist who worked for three years as a studio assistant under the internationally acclaimed Jun Kaneko. “I sense that Bryan and I might be a little alike in that regard. We keep our eyes and ears open during our walk through the day, and maybe we stumble onto something that is a little bit different. Maybe we even learn something new. I expect to learn something from Bryan today. I hope he feels the same way.”

Sumnik was introduced to Allison through a collaboration between local nonprofit organizations WhyArts and VODEC. WhyArts works to ensure that visual and performing arts experiences are open to people of all ages and abilities throughout the metro area. VODEC (see the related story on page 117) provides vocational, residential, and day services for persons with intellectual disabilities in Nebraska and Iowa.

Sumnik unpacks the tools of his profession—a massive block of malleable “potential” and a jumble of clay-working implements—as he explains to Allison and nine of his VODEC friends what would unfold over the next hour or so.

20131213_bs_8014“I didn’t come in with any particular project in mind for you,” he explains. “I’m just here to be an extra set of hands, so I want to see your creativity today—your ideas, not mine.”“Our ideas,” the perpetually smiling Allison replies. “I’m going to make an island. Hawaii. I’m going to be an artist!”

From senior centers and middle schools to the Completely KIDS campus and vocational facilities like VODEC, WhyArts offers a broad slate of programs backed by a small army of talented artists from the arenas of the visual arts, theater, dance, music, poetry, storytelling, and beyond.

The roster of WhyArts artists reads something like a Who’s Who of the creative community. Jill Anderson is the popular chanteuse, recording artist, and Actors’ Equity performer. Roxanne Nielsen makes magic as a frequent choreographer of Omaha Community Playhouse productions. Ballet legend Robin Welch was featured in the last issue of Omaha Magazine. Add spoken word impresario Felicia Webster and Circle Theater co-founder Doug Marr, to name but a few, and it’s a line-up that represents the very best—and most caring—of a city’s imagination pool. “These are more than just talented professionals with long resumes who happen to do workshops,” says WhyArts director Carolyn Anderson. “They are advocates of the arts, but they are also passionate advocates for inclusion.”

Originally known as Very Special Arts Nebraska when the group formed in 1990, the WhyArts model is one that recognizes the simplest of ideas—that creative expression is a foundational attribute of the human condition.

“The underserved populations we reach generally do not have access to the arts,” Anderson continues, “but creativity is innate in us all, regardless of age or ability. What we do is to help people discover that creativity. We don’t try to ‘teach’ art. We experience it right along with them—and on their terms, just like you see Iggy doing here today. Everything we do is carefully tailored to the needs and abilities of the people we serve, but we do it in a way that respects the individual and encourages the artistic expression that is waiting to be released in each and every one of us.”

It’s a formula that also works well for organizations like VODEC.

“The WhyArts mission of inclusion mirrors our own in a perfect way,” says Daryn Richardson, VODEC’s services development   director. “Both of our organizations build bridges to the community with as many organizations and with as many people as we can. That’s the goal of every program we develop.”

Making art in a group, Sumnik adds, is a two-way street. “I try to be nothing more than an enabler for their imaginations,” he says, “but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve found inspiration for my own work through people like Bryan.”

Sumnik’s artists have now completed a menagerie of clay creations that will be fired by WhyArts before being returned to their makers. Allison’s fanciful island paradise features a larger-than-life giraffe towering over a lava-spewing volcano.

“We’re getting ready to photograph my art for a magazine!” says Allison, now the center of attention throughout VODEC’s humming-with-activity work floor. “I’m going to be an artist!”

“Going to be?” Sumnik replies. “You’re already there, my man. You’re already there.”

 

Her 13 Cents Worth

January 6, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Though inching 
perilously close
 to senior citizen status, Robin Welch still moves with the grace and agility of a young prima ballerina, which of course she once was.

Welch came to the Midlands in 1985 as principal dancer for Ballet Omaha, continuing an upward trajectory in ballet that can only be described as meteoric. Previously, she had won a full scholarship at age 15 to train with the Harkness Ballet in New York City, where she was born. Her talents won her a permanent spot with the company and at 17 she jetted off to Monaco.

“Our company was based in Monte Carlo,” she recounts. “Princess Grace would invite us to the castle. We’d swim in their pool.”

The company danced all across Europe, where Welch met or performed with the greatest ballet legends of the era, including Mikhail Baryshnikov.

Yes, everything was beautiful—until Rebekah Harkness decided to close the company she had founded. Welch returned stateside to join the Connecticut Ballet. It was in New Haven in 1978 that a photo of her was taken and used on a postage stamp—worth a princely 13 cents—as part of the Postal Service’s USA Dance series.

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The call to Omaha actually came from her then-husband, artistic director Robert Vickrey, who brought his wife and their young daughter, Rachel, with him to develop Ballet Omaha. After Robert’s departure in the early ’90s (the couple had divorced by then), Ballet Omaha collapsed, and Welch retired as a dancer.

The curtain rose again in 1999 when The Rose Theater offered to house a new school and company, Omaha Ballet Theater, which Welch founded. After 11 years at the helm of Omaha’s only professional ballet company, she was stunned when The Rose decided to sever its ties.

“It was draining to see it disintegrate before my eyes,” says Welch of her ballet school.

But she was born to teach. Welch gathered her strength, her money, and her daughter—an accomplished ballet artist herself—and in 2010 opened Robin Welch Dance Arts, home of Heartland Youth Ballet. Welch’s gift of unfettered, joyous movement now shines in her 
young students.

“I have worked with children trained by Robin,” says Ernest Richardson, Resident Conductor of the Omaha Symphony. “They come consummately prepared. They’re disciplined, respectful, and they know how to work with the orchestra. She’s an 
amazing woman.”

Accolades from her peers sustained Welch after she thought her life’s work had ended. When the Omaha Entertainment and Arts Awards presented her with their Lifetime Achievement Award two years ago, she broke down in gratitude.

“I had felt isolated until that point,” she admits. “But [the award] made me feel like I was part of the community again. It came at a great time.”

With Heartland Youth Ballet now soaring, Welch’s story adds another en pointe chapter—this one with a happy ending.

Forever in Black

January 4, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Whether it’s your first time inside the glittering Orpheum Theater or your fiftieth visit to the sleek Holland Performing Arts Center, attending a live performance is an exciting event. The lobby fills with eager patrons and the buzz of conversation as a floor captain directs a couple to the gift shop while their tutu-clad daughter hops up and down with anticipation. A man in elegant evening wear checks out a hearing device from a volunteer while a couple in cowboy boots hover at their assigned door, which is—finally!—opened by a smiling usher. Each of these patrons has been made to feel welcome by an official Ambassador for Omaha Performing Arts [OPA].

For its March 2013 return run of The Lion King’s 32 sold-out performances, 383 Ambassadors volunteered a total of 6,804 hours. This past August, Disney Theatrical Productions presented a rare award, a handcrafted lioness mask honoring the outstanding achievement of The Lion King’s success in Omaha. Ambassadors were a central element in the success of that and any run at either the Orpheum or the Holland.

One of the black-clad volunteers, Sue Mouttet, was recognized for working 94 events during the 2012-13 season. Think of the math on that. That’s the equivalent of Mouttet spending one out of every four days of the year dressed in one of her black Ambassador’s outfits.

Sue Mouttet in the calm before the storm at the Orpheum Theater

Sue Mouttet in the calm before the storm at the Orpheum Theater

“I became an Ambassador in 2005, the year the Holland opened,” says Mouttet. “I enjoy every assignment I get because I love the public contact.” Many people think of Ambassadors simply as ushers, but their duties are as varied as Omaha Performing Arts’ line-up of performances. One of the jobs of female Ambassadors is directing intermission traffic through the rest rooms during lobby-packed intermissions. “It may sound funny, but it can make a big difference in one’s [a patron’s] experience,” Mouttet says. [Editor’s Tip: For much shorter restroom lines at the Orpheum, take the short flight of stairs down from the lobby and use the lower-level facilities.]

Mouttet has a special understanding of theater—she is an actor who’s played several area stages. This background helps her better explain the nuances of the evening to ticketholders. Why can’t we be seated early? The doors must wait while cast and crew make their last-minute checks so you will enjoy a killer, perfectly staged performance.

Joni Fuchs, OPA’s Front of House Manager, oversees 450 volunteer Ambassadors. She was hired for the position two years ago but had been an Ambassador since 2006. Like many in her small army of volunteers, she came at the suggestion of friends and joined a mixed group of people who share a love for performing arts and helping others. Many are retired, but others come from jobs in business, education, and trade. The minimum age is 18; the oldest Ambassador is 90. And each one is greatly appreciated. “They provide an invaluable service to Omaha,” says Fuchs. “They are the face of Omaha Performing Arts.”

Ambassadors like Mouttet take their responsibilities and commitments seriously, but they also enjoy such perks as seeing OPA’s array of outstanding Broadway, music, and dance performances at two stellar venues. Ambassadors may watch performances during periods when they’re not otherwise needed, and they also earn points that they can exchange for free tickets.

“No matter what we do,” Mouttet says of her varied and many duties, “we serve one patron at a time and we go, go, go!”

The Church of Tomorrow

August 30, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Dillon Gitano

Nicholas Wasserberger and Mark Steffan are almost, well, In Real Life meme generators. “We really feel that immersing people in an artificial environment, in a bubble, in a world, is amazing,” Wasserberger says. “We want to immerse them in a certain genre, a theme, so that everyone can have this experience, this nostalgia.”

Together, Wasserberger and Steffan are the Church of Tomorrow, an avant-garde party-planning duo responsible for themed events in Benson galleries and Downtown Omaha nightclubs. They’ve also collaborated with local band Icky Blossoms and North Sea Films for video styling, as well as local dance-party group GOO.

The Church specializes in themes of music and fashion from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. “With events at, like, [House of] Loom, we come up with the ideas and concepts and themes,” Steffan says. “We promote it. We decorate it. We set the theme, the mood. And then we discuss with the DJs what the music genre should be. We set up the environment.”

“There’s a lot of history and education that goes into it,” Wasserberger says of their event prep. For example, their inaugural David Bowie tribute party last October at House of Loom was a study in glam rock. “Other cities around the nation throw David Bowie parties,” Steffan points out, “which just brings Omaha to a greater connectivity with other cities’ night-life culture.”

“Nobody’s trying to be too cool. We can see how people find the humor in what we do. It looks completely outrageous, and we’re completely outrageous, and we can laugh about that.” – Mark Steffan

“Our New Romantic Party was based off of one club that ran in London for, like, six months,” Wasserberger says. Such ’80s London nightclubs started a trend of evenings dedicated to specific themes. “Boy George came from there,” Steffan says. “Duran Duran. Spandau Ballet. Changed music forever.”

Wasserberger and Steffan encourage party-goers to dress to the theme. “It’s Halloween all year-round,” Steffan says. Realizing that not everyone is up on the movements or music they select, they try to educate the masses ahead of time. In the weeks leading up to a party, they post links on Facebook Event pages to documentaries such as Paris Is Burning or songs like “All Tomorrow’s Parties” by The Velvet Underground.

“We want to let people in Omaha experience where the roots of music and youth movements and nightclubbing came from,” Wasserberger says.

Last January, the Sweatshop Gallery in Benson asked Church of Tomorrow to create “a full-on art installation” for their Afterbirth show during the neighborhood’s First Friday art crawl. “We went thrifting for about three or four weeks just picking up the ugliest stuff. Kids’ bed sheets, after-Christmas-sale tinsel,” Wasserberger says. “We put the sheets on the walls and spray-painted them with political symbols, grabbed every disco light we could find in Omaha.”

“They both have a very distinct style,” says Caitlin Little of Sweatshop Gallery, “and they were able in this instance to transform thought into feeling and experience. The events they put on are meant to challenge the normal, beat the boring, and provide an all-inclusive, full-force fun time.”

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“We wanted to present what our physical chapel would look like,” Steffan says. “This is basically our religion, these are things we like to do, and they’re sometimes a little more progressive.” They both are advocates of women’s and transgender rights and radical homosexuality.

To fully immerse people in their passions and ideals, the pair burned incense and filled the gallery with flashing lights, projections, and obscure disco music. “It was a sensory overload,” Wasserberger says.

Little agrees. “Afterbirth in particular was like going to a sleepover in their brains!”

About 200 people came, they estimate. “That’s probably an average crowd,” Steffan says. “We get more at Loom,” Wasserberger counters.

“Everybody that comes to our events, they’re the nicest people,” Steffan says. “Nobody’s trying to be too cool. We can see how people find the humor in what we do. It looks completely outrageous, and we’re completely outrageous, and we can laugh about that.”

If there’s money involved, the two split the profit 50-50. Their one-of-a-kind buttons help fund their parties, too. Steffan and Wasserberger wear them out on the town, and if someone admires one, “Oh, they’re $2,” Steffan says, “take one.” They also design the buttons that Icky Blossoms takes on tour. The pair splits cover charges among themselves and an event’s DJs. “We’re pretty savvy about thrifting,” Steffan says.

House of Loom co-owner Brent Crampton agrees. “Their DIY method of throwing a party is raw yet fabulously tacky,” he says. “Meaning, I’ll give them $100 for decorations, and they’ll make the place look like a thousand bucks.” He adds that, quite simply, the Church of Tomorrow is his favorite promoter to work with. “They come up with some of the off-the-wall, almost forgotten corners of culture to celebrate.”

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Crampton points out that the pair not only designs and decorates an event, they clean up after it as well. “At the end of the night when everyone just wants to get paid and go home, they’ll stick around and help the staff clean. It’s quite amazing.”

“Everything we do, we do sober,” Wasserberger says. “Which surprises a lot of people. If we were sloppy at a party, come 1:30 in the morning, we would not still be on the dance floor keeping everyone there.”

Steffan has been clean and sober for two and a half years. “And in the last two and a half years, I’ve been the most creative I’ve ever been.”

Wasserberger will occasionally have a drink. “Never when I’m working,” he clarifies, “because you don’t need it. The true freaks are always sober. Like Boy George. Sober now.”

Steffan has plans to promote Church of Tomorrow events in New York after he settles in from his move in May to be with partner Joey Koneko. “And then when he comes back for visits, we’ll do more together here,” Wasserberger says, such as the second David Bowie Tribute this Oct. 5 at House of Loom. He also hints that he already has things set up to do on his own with Sweatshop Gallery and Loom.

Party Animal Style

Style is (obviously) a huge part of life for Wasserberger and Steffan. Their inspirations include such flamboyant names as Boy George, David Bowie, Vivienne Westwood, Isabella Blow, Leigh Bowery, and Anna Biaggi. “Otherwise, our style is just wear what you want,” Wasserberger says. He points to his shirt that he bought for a dollar, but his pants are Versace, no matter that he found them at Goodwill. “As long as you feel good, you’re going to look it.”

“I think that’s what it all basically comes down to,” Steffan says. “Our bodies are the medium for our art.”

“Sometimes we look really shallow, but there’s philosophy behind this,” Wasserberger says. “We know fashion history. If you make fun of us for wearing skirts, we’ll tell you that skirts were invented by men for men.”

Steffan and Wassberger at their David Bowie tribute party

Steffan and Wassberger at their David Bowie tribute party

Fortunately, Omaha has amazing thrifting, and Steffan and Wasserberger know where to find it all: The Salvation Army, Second Chance, Shop Around the Corner. “I don’t invest in fine art or other collectibles,” Steffan says. “Purchasing clothes, that’s my collection. There’s only a few things I’d pay a lot of money for, but it has to be really special.”

“If we pay $3 for most of our wardrobe,” Wasserberger explains, “then we can afford that one special item.”

Their experiments extend to hair as well. Wasserberger’s lavender hair is a result of Steffan’s experimentation with toner and fabric dyes. “Constant evolution is key,” Steffan says. “When you get stuck in the same old routine, that’s when you start feeling trapped.”

“It blows our minds when other people are like, that’s so foreign,” Wasserberger says. “Why should it be? Everyone should be constantly changing. It’s a really positive thing.”