Visions of Sugarplums May Dance in Your Head, But This Topeka Treasure Will Dance Straight into Your Heart
Ballet Midwest’s annual performance of The Nutcracker has become a holiday tradition for hundreds of Topeka families. Now we go behind the scenes and meet the Topeka family who made it all happen. For them, Ballet Midwest is a love, a lifelong dream, and a lasting legacy rolled into one.
Barbara Ebert grew up in Topeka. As she grew, so did her passion for dance. But back then, her mom had to drive her to Kansas City and down into Oklahoma each week for multiple classes for training because there were no dance studios nearby. She got her degree in dance at the University of Utah and danced with the professional ballet company Ballet West. But all along, she held fast to her dream of coming back and starting a quality ballet studio within the Topeka community.
Ebert’s dream became reality in 1977 when she opened Ballet Midwest, and it has been flourishing ever since. Her passion for dance has been passed on to her daughter, Lacee Sandgren, now Artistic Director at Ballet Midwest. “I grew up with a similar dream to my mom, but instead of starting a ballet company, my dream was to take over the company that Mom started,” Sandgren said. Sandgren got her degree in dance at the University of Missouri, Kansas City and then moved to Seattle to dance professionally for a few years. In addition to her professional dance experience, she went to New York to become an American Ballet Theatre certified teacher.
In 2014, Sandgren returned to Topeka to co-direct for a couple of years with her mom. “My mom made it to her retirement years and we had a big celebration for her in 2017. She now serves as our Artistic Director Emeritus,” Sandgren said. “She still pops in and gives her advice and expertise.”
Now, in its 45th year, Ballet Midwest is solidly entrenched in the Topeka community. Having been a part of the community for so long, they have a lot of second, and even a few third generation dancers. “I think that really speaks to the quality of our program,” Sandgren said. “A former student told me she just wanted to do her part to make sure that this continues on so her kids get to learn the life lessons and experience all the amazing things that she got to experience.”
Today, Ballet Midwest has approximately 85 dancers between the Company (14 years and up) and the Junior Company (11-13 year olds) with a total of 300 dancers of all ages in the studio. They use only local talent in their shows. This year’s production of The Nutcracker will have about 200 dancers in the cast. “We don’t bring in any dancers from out of town,” Sandgren said. “Our dancers are from surrounding areas including North East Kansas, Manhattan, and Emporia. We are a civic ballet company and we enjoy showcasing the amazing talent we have here in the Midwest. There’s nothing they can’t handle.”
Ballet Midwest puts on at least two productions each year - The Nutcracker Ballet at Christmastime and a rotating full-length classical ballet in the spring. This spring’s ballet will be Sleeping Beauty. Throughout the year, they are involved in lots of community outreach programs. They partner with the Topeka Zoo for performances under the stars as well as Wildly Creative, a celebration of arts and creativity that includes dance performances, craft stations, a scavenger hunt, and a magic show for the kids to enjoy. They participate in Fall Fest at Vinewood, walk in the Washburn parade, visit local schools for lectures and dance demonstrations and more.
Every year they also do a benefit performance at the Topeka Performing Arts Center. They invite every school in the Northeast Kansas area to come see a free full-length presentation of the Nutcracker. “We usually have a couple thousand students come in on the buses,” Sandgren said. “They get to come into TPAC and experience the theater life, see the theater setting, and watch the full show. It’s wonderful to see their reactions.”
After 45 years, Ballet Midwest is a true Topeka staple, introducing dance and the arts to thousands who might otherwise not have the opportunity to ever experience it. “We want to make dance accessible to everyone we can,” Sandgren said. “That was my mom’s dream and it has become my own as well.” Plan to take your kids to see Ballet Midwest’s production of The Nutcracker this holiday season at the Topeka Performing Arts Center.
Friday, Dec. 9th - 7:30 pm
Saturday, Dec. 10th - 1:30 pm & 7:30 pm
Sunday, Dec. 11th - 1:30 pm
For more information about Ballet Midwest, or to become a member, visit Balletmidwest.net