Tag Archives: Patrick Roddy

Choreographing a Modern Life

April 7, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Patti Zukaitis often does what is termed plié relevé. The 64-year-old bends her legs down, keeping her knees in alignment over her feet, then she stretches up, up onto her toes as high as she can.

She has reached many heights in her 40-plus years as a dancer, yet she doesn’t see herself a star.

“Patti’s not the type of person who looks to be in the spotlight very much,” says Patrick Roddy, who heads Creighton University’s dance department, where Zukaitis is the other professor.

Zukaitis began classes at age 9, but discovered her true passion for dance as a college student. She studied at Creighton with her longtime teacher Valerie Roche and became one of the first graduates of the dance program.

Roche, a professional ballerina since age 12, drove Omaha dance from the beginnings of Omaha Regional Ballet Academy in spring 1964 into the early years of the now Omaha Academy of Ballet and beyond.

Zukaitis became a teacher at Creighton’s dance program while a student.

“Valerie kind of pushed me in this direction, and I fell into it,” Zukaitis says. “I didn’t have a dream to be a ballerina.”

It was at Creighton that Zukaitis discovered modern dance, a form she has loved and performed since with Creighton and local companies DanceScape and Omaha Modern Dance Collective.

In 1982, Zukaitis’ husband, John, had just finished medical school and obtained a job in New York City, partially because living in New York was a dream of Patti’s. She wanted to attend New York University, and true to form, she entered their prestigious Tisch School of the Arts in a nontraditional way.

“I was so naive,” Zukaitis says. “I called and said, ‘I’d like to enroll.’ I got a secretary who said, ‘Oh. People have been auditioning all spring for this.’”

Heartbroken, her brain pirouetting from the rejection, Zukaitis called her mother, who told her to just march down there and prove to them she was worthy of being in the program.

Zukaitis went to the campus and spoke to the director, who told her to come down for the first day of classes. As it turned out, one student had been accepted, but had not yet committed to the program. “I took a ballet class and I took a modern class,” Zukaitis says. “I was auditioning, but I didn’t realize it.” At the end of that first day, the director offered her the final position in the program.

Their first daughter, Kathryn, now 30, was born while she was in school. Even with a young baby, Zukaitis earned a Master of Fine Arts in dance in 1986.

A second daughter, Lucy, was born in 1988. When their son Jack was due in 1991, the Zukaitis family, cramped into a one-bedroom apartment, moved back to Omaha. Patti returned to Creighton.

“It was almost as though I never left,” she says. “I just contacted Valerie and she said come on over.”

A third daughter, Julie Rose, came along in 1994. 

The professor and mom also taught for Omaha Academy of Ballet with Roche until 2002, when Roche retired after 40 years with the school.

“I told Valerie, OK, I’ll do it [be the director], but I want a co-director,” Zukaitis says.  She and co-director Sheila Nelson led the school for 14 years. They had big slippers to fill. Roche had taken the OAB from a small ballet company to a well-respected academy with a separate performing company.

Zukaitis stepped into the role gracefully and stretched the organization even further. A big part of the job, one which was important to Zukaitis as well as the school, was examinations.

The OAB is the only school in Omaha which uses the rigorous Imperial Society of Teacher of Dancing qualifications. Zukaitis holds an associate diploma through the ISTD and  brought in examiners each year to keep the school ISTD qualified.

Most importantly, the school became an environment where people wanted to bring their children to learn.

Roddy believes Zukaitis herself was one of the big factors in this.

“I think she’s one of the best ballet teachers in town, and she’s one of the nicest people I know.  She’s been an incredible friend and colleague.”

He would know. The two met when he was in high school attending advanced ballet classes at Creighton.

“She uses her knowledge and talents in the best way possible to get her technique across to all ages of people from very young to adults,” he says. “Her musicality is excellent, beyond reproach.”

He considers Zukaitis herself one of his very good friends, and that means a lot to her.

“I used to say when I was younger I wanted to grow up and work with my best friends, and that’s really what I’ve done,” Zukaitis  says. “I love the people I work with, and I have been very fortunate to have worked with them to build the dance community in Omaha.”

This past year, Zukaitis stepped down as OAB director to be with her family. Her daughters are all pursuing performing arts careers while Jack is training to be a firefighter.

“I hope they can make a living doing what they love,” Zukaitis says.

They should succeed.  After all, they have a successful role model.


The People Behind the Curtain

August 29, 2013 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann and Dwyer Photography

Considering that the theme of this year’s Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball is “On the Golden Road,” a nod to The Wizard of Oz, perhaps it’s time we did pay attention to that man behind the curtain. Or, rather, the people behind the curtain. In fact, six volunteers work together on the ball’s production team for nearly the entire year to make certain that the music, the set, the lights, and the words all meld into one seamless production.

All six have full-time jobs outside of the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball.

In M. Michele Phillips’ case, she has several: “Sometimes I’m acting, sometimes I’m teaching, sometimes I’m writing, sometimes I’m the wine steward at the bistro at Fort Omaha.” As the team’s scriptwriter, it’s up to Phillips to keep track of the massive script, 45 pages that detail the ball’s many players and their movements.

“It’s such a behemoth!” she says. “There are songs that unify the theme; there are quotes that unify it. Sometimes there are procedural things that change, so you can’t even count on the way things have been done in the past.” Phillips adds that the chairperson of the coronation can have a hundred million ideas or none. “So you kind of have to help them, guide them along. Sometimes their ideas are impossible to execute, and sometimes they’re not thinking as big as they could be.”

When those big ideas do come out, Phillips remarks how Jim Othuse, as set and lighting designer for the ball, is always budget conscious but “always comes up with something really spectacular.”

“Getting [the Pages] to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting.” – Patrick Roddy, choreographer

Othuse, scenic and lighting designer at the Omaha Community Playhouse, states that designing the ball’s huge set does get easier over the years; after all, he’s been doing it since 1979. “That was the year the theme was ‘One Thousand and One Knights’,” he recalls. “I was a little unsure as to whether I could handle such a big project; in those days we had lots of scenic elements, far more than we do now.” Thirty-four years later, his favorite part of the job is still figuring out how to fit in each year’s new pieces.

It’s a sentiment he shares with Patrick Roddy, who by day is a dance instructor at Creighton University. As the ball’s choreographer, Roddy’s had to come up with some creative solutions each year, particularly for corralling 50 youngsters during the Page run. “Getting them to stay in their lines or do it any sort of order is…interesting,” he says with a laugh. “Last year, we decided to get them out onto the runway, which is about 300 feet long. All the pages were bumblebees, and we played ‘Flight of the Bumblebees.’ I gave them some cues for when they should start a big circle. Everybody had not much faith that I could do it. It’s a huge room, there’s so much stimuli, but, by gosh, they did it. They found their little music cues, they found their spots to spread out.”

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Tom Ware, M. Michele Phillips, Chuck Penington, Stephanie Anderson, and Jim Othuse manage to grab a quick break together in front of First Christian Church (unaffiliated with Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben).

Herding people is a task near and dear to the heart of Stephanie Anderson, the stage director. “Let me think, we’ve got princesses and Heartland princesses and pages and governors and councilors and court of honor and performers and orchestra…” Anderson, a veteran actor-director, pauses. “It’s got to be between 100 and 150 people.”

And the majority of the people who will be on stage aren’t used to performing in front of huge crowds, she adds. “You cannot expect that they’ll remember how to hit marks when they’re facing 2,500 people. Suddenly, the lights are on, and it’s deer in the headlights. It’s very unpredictable, and there’s very little you can do about it.” That can just be part of the appeal of the evening. Anderson states that the young pages are adorable because of their unpredictability. Still, it’s a good thing Roddy plans to give them great musical cues again this year, this time with “Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are” from The Wizard of Oz and “Ease on Down the Road” from The Wiz.

“We all get along so great. There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time.” – Tom Ware, sound designer

But if we’re talking about music, well, now we’re getting into Chuck Penington’s domain. It’s his life, after all. He’s a professional bass player, as well as president of PANDA Productions, a music production company in Omaha. As the team’s music director, he recalls that his first association with the coronation was in 1974. “At the time, the music director was a guy named Richard Hayman,” Penington says. “He was the orchestrator for Boston Pops Orchestra.” He recalls that, at the time, the Ak-Sar-Ben Ball committee had found an old piece called “The Ak-Sar-Ben March,” a commemoration scored for piano, and they wanted to employ Hayman to orchestrate it. “He said he would do it, but he needed a copyist,” Penington remembers. “So I had a great week with Richard Hayman, copying the parts with him. I got to study his scores close up. It was a very nice opportunity for me.”

Sound designer Tom Ware has his own memories of celebrities he’s met thanks to the old Ak-Sar-Ben Stadium where the ball used to be held…specifically the show where Yanni, performing with Chameleon, winked at Ware’s girlfriend. “I made his monitor feedback,” he says a touch proudly. Even though the story showcases his abilities as the typical sound guy twiddling knobs on a board, Ware (owner of Ware House Productions, Inc.) says there’s a bit more to his job for the ball than that. “I personally do the mix for the whole room, but, wow, getting to that point and figuring out what the show needs with regard to the sound, the acoustics? Are there theatrics and extra sounds that need to go along with that? It’s a mix of music and production.”

With such a job description, Ware obviously works closely with Penington and Othuse, and well, everyone else on the team. “We all get along so great,” he says. “There’s no egos, no drama involved. We take it seriously, but we have a good time. It’s great to see it all culminate in this show. The individuals are greater than the sum of the parts.”

The 2013 Ak-Sar-Ben Coronation and Scholarship Ball will be held Oct. 19 at CenturyLink Center Omaha. For more information about the event, visit aksarben.org.