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Jewish dancers find holiday spirit in ‘The Nutcracker’

Zoe Stein

Even if you’ve already seen “The Nutcracker,” this year’s production is a must see! The Kansas City Ballet is presenting the world premiere of “The Nutcracker,” with new choreography, sets, costumes and lighting under the artistic direction of Devon Carney.

Three Jewish performers say they are very excited to be a part of “The Nutcracker” remake. As a trainee, this is Zoe Stein’s first year with the Kansas City Ballet. {mprestriction ids="1,3"}It’s also Aaron Steinberg’s first year, as a new KCB II (second company) dancer. Lilliana Hagerman, an apprentice, performed in KCB II last year and is now a full-fledged member of the main company.

Lilliana Hagerman

As an Air Force “brat” Hagerman, 23, was born in Italy, but raised in the United States. She had been with the Orlando Ballet since she was about 12 before coming to Kansas City last year.

“I had never experienced another company before so I thought I would try and see what else was out there,” she said. “Kansas City seemed like a really great place and I ended up auditioning and getting in, so I came here.”

She has been in “The Nutcracker” before, but is thrilled with the Kansas City Ballet’s new version.

“The music is the same of course, but it’s very exciting. I’ve seen some of the costumes and they’re gorgeous. It’s going to be awesome,” she said.

Lilliana Hagerman

She’s learning the parts of a party parent, the maid, a snowflake, a flower, Spanish dancer and marzipan.

Hagerman began ballet when she was 6 years old at the Midwest Dance Academy in Illinois, then moved into jazz, tap, lyrical and modern dance around age 8. She started more intense ballet training at the Orlando Ballet School when she was 17.

“I had to work very, very hard to keep up with everyone, but I did it,” she said.

Besides “The Nutcracker,” Hagerman has many major productions under her belt, including “Romeo and Juliet,” “Carmen,” “Giselle,” “Swan Lake,” “Hansel and Gretel” and “Snow White.”

Hagerman said she is not extremely religious — her mother is Jewish and her father is Christian. But she knows about Judaic beliefs and all the holidays.

“Some people ask me about ‘The Nutcracker,’ you know, they’re celebrating Christmas. They ask me if that bothers me and I don’t think it does at all,” she said. “It’s just telling the story of a little girl. It’s about the little girl; it’s not about celebrating Christmas instead of Hanukkah or whatever.”

You can follow Hagerman on Instagram @LILLYBANILLY.

Aaron Steinberg

Steinberg, 23, is from Tenafly, New Jersey. He started training at age 17 at Nunnbetter Dance Theatre in Bergenfield, New Jersey, then went on to train at the University of Oklahoma.

“I was with the Sarasota Ballet last season and I did some of my training over in Germany at the Hamburg Ballet, as well as the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre,” he said. “I’ve been around.”

Steinberg said he’s having an amazing time here working with the Kansas City Ballet’s second company as well as the main company. He researched several local companies and liked the direction Kansas City’s company was going, its new facilities and Artistic Director Devon Carney.

Aaron Steinberg

Kansas City’s “Nutcracker” will be Steinberg’s first. He’ll be doing a rat, a party parent and five characters in the second act. “They have us pretty busy.”

“I like the experience of learning an entirely new production,” he said. “It’s been a very hard and fulfilling process because it’s very fun to be part of a new production, to be there while the choreography is happening instead of just learning something that’s already been done for many, many years.

“So it’s actually been a very enriching experience and has really pushed me to be smarter and pick up things quicker. And it’s interesting to see how the production changes and moves forward day to day.”

While Steinberg says “The Nutcracker” is more of a Christian ballet, based off of the original performances of the Roman Catholic Church in Russia, he believes it’s more about the holiday spirit.

“Regardless of Christmas or Hanukkah or any religious holiday or celebration, everyone can come to ‘The Nutcracker’ and enjoy it as a performance,” he said. “I think it’s more about the holiday aspect of it and the celebration and the story is about this girl and her family and her magical adventures.”

Zoe Stein

Trainee Stein, 19, came to Kansas City from her hometown of New York City. She didn’t have any particular location in mind when she decided to pursue a career in dance, so she auditioned for many companies. She learned a lot about the Kansas City Ballet and then was accepted, so she came here.

“It’s been absolutely wonderful to be here this year and it’s lived up to all the expectations and more, so I’m really thrilled with my decision,” she said.

She calls the new production “amazing”; it’s an experience she’s never had before.

“I find it so interesting, all of us dancers who come from different places all over the world, we’ve all danced to the same music probably a hundred times in our lives, but all of us now are experiencing it differently and it’s really cool to be a part of it,” she said.

She’s learned the parts of a mother in the party scene, one of the waltzing flowers, a snowflake and a marzipan shepherdess.

Stein said her mother signed her up for her first dance class when she was just three years old at a local dance studio. “I was a very energetic kid and she wanted something to tire me out at the end of the day. So I did ballet and gymnastics and a lot of that kind of stuff when I was younger.”

She balanced her dance classes with her school schedule, Hebrew school and studying for her Bat Mitzvah.

In New York, Stein is a member of Temple Shaaray Tefila, a Reform synagogue. She misses spending Jewish holidays and Shabbat dinners with her family, so she’s found a way to be “with” them — sort of. She video chats with her family during dinners.

“My family is really big on Shabbat dinner every Friday night and when I get out of rehearsal I book it to my apartment and open my computer. My family and I say the prayers and they sit and have Shabbat dinner with me coming through via screen,” she said.

On Rosh Hashanah this year, with her extended family and herself unable to be together, a lot of her cousins, aunts and uncles, as well as her immediate family, all managed to video chat or use iPads to come together.

And on Yom Kippur, Stein was able to live stream the High Holy Day service of a synagogue in New York. She says her parents call it 21st century Judaism.

“It’s been tough living away from home, pursuing this dance career,” Stein said. “It doesn’t really give me the flexibility to be somewhere else on those dates, but that’s what the Internet has solved for us.”

Stein said her Jewishness has always made her feel unique, that there was something about her that wasn’t part of the norm.

“Just that in itself is incorporated into my personality,” she said. “I don’t think of myself as someone who’s one of the group. I’m somewhat of a follower, I guess.”{/mprestriction}