Taking the stage: Niles natives to star in A&A Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’

Published 8:19 am Friday, May 3, 2024

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CHICAGO — A pair of Niles natives will be sharing the stage under the bright lights of a major Chicago production this month.

Jasper Keck and Amber Neumann are gearing up for A&A Ballet’s production of “Cinderella” set for 3 p.m. Saturday, May 18 at Athenaeum Theater, 2936 N. Southport Ave., Chicago, Ill. Keck will dance the role of Prince, Neumann the role of Stepmother and Tatiana Chen will perform the role of Cinderella. Supporting cast members hail from around the world including countries such as Guatemala, Mexico, Belarus, Switzerland, Japan, China and Canada. Tickets can be purchased at athenaeumcenter.org.

“It’s been an amazing experience,” Keck said. “You leave your own mark on the role because every time that you do a new production or continue a production, the choreography changes ever so slightly to fit the individual. To be able to leave your own mark for the next person is a wonderful thing.”

Neumann grew up watching her older sister dance, which inspired her to give it a try. A long-time student of A&A founders Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik – and the first ever student of Joffrey Academy who became a professional dancer with the Joffrey Ballet – Amber danced as Cinderella in the original performance in 2007. In 2009, she earned the Youth America Grand Prix’s top prize awarded to a solo dancer during its February Chicago competition. YAGP is the world’s largest student ballet scholarship competition and draws dancers from across the U.S. and overseas.

“I don’t know that I was super serious about dance until I started working with Anna and Alexei,” she said. “I always loved it. My sister and I used to put on productions of our own but I think (Anna and Alexei) really cultivated that passion and the thought that I could do it for a living.”

She returns for the 2024 performance as Stepmother in A&A Ballet’s modern rendition. She was a leading artist with the Joffrey from 2010 to 2016 and later worked in Germany as a dancer and a ballet mistress.

“It’s really cool because I’m revisiting it in a different way,” Neumann said. “To come back to it and to be the stepmother and to be in this character role, it’s really cool and it’s really fun to see how the piece has evolved.”

Neumann said she still remembers some of the steps from her 2007 performance.

“You develop a lot of muscle memory in dance, so there are some things where I’ll see the current Cinderella doing her dance and I remember those steps,” she said. “I think I was 15 or 16 when we did it the first time, so that’s been really special for me.”

Keck is a 2024 Youth America Grand Prix finalist. YAGP is a nonprofit international youth ballet and contemporary dance competition and scholarship program.

Like Neumann before him, Keck is currently participating in YAGP NY and is now a finalist in the competition. Keck said he had no intention of doing ballet growing up but like Neumann, his sisters played a role in getting him started.

“I was a football guy until when I was about 12 or 13,” he said. “The school that they danced at sent out an email to all the parents of the students saying we don’t have enough guys for the party scene in our ‘Art Deco Nutcracker’ so can you please sign your sons up? I didn’t want to do it; my parents told me, ‘you’re going to do this,’ and in the very first rehearsal, it was so hard. I was out of breath. I was sweating, I was red in the face. That realization of how difficult this art form was while making it look effortless is what really got me into it and just the difficulty of it.”

From Niles to Chicago

According to Keck, he first became aware of Neumann during that production of “The Nutcracker” when he met Neumann’s father, Jeff, who portrayed the grandfather.

“He had been such a wonderful person to work with and always had jokes,” Keck said. “He has mentioned many times that his daughter also studied and she went on to teach at the Joffrey and even reached out to my family back in Niles to see how they were doing. So when Alexei mentioned that he was bringing on a miss Amber Neumann to play the role of stepmother, I knew who she was.”

For both Keck and Neumann, being able to represent Niles on a big stage fills them with pride.

“I’m so proud to be from Niles and I think it has so much to offer and so much potential, too,” Neumann said. “It’s a small town but we came from there and look at the things that we’re doing now and look where we’re performing. I just think it can be so encouraging for parents and for kids who are interested in the Arts to just kind of say ‘let him do it,’ let’s encourage this,’ ‘let’s do that.’ That for me is super meaningful and to have this media coverage, I hope that it can reach some of those people who are maybe on the fence about it or aren’t sure if it’s worth the investment because it’s a lot of time.”

The thrill of performing in front of a live audience is both Keck and Neumann’s favorite part of dance.

“The energy is just off the charts,” Keck said. “You go from doing dress rehearsals in the studio with three or four instructors watching and the artistic director giving directions to doing it live in front of hundreds of people and you feel the excitement right before the curtain goes up. The applause, the standing ovations at the end, the family members whistling and cheering. It’s just all the adrenaline gets going and how can you not dance to a crowd that loves you that much?”

“When you go to a lot of these dance performances, it’s really cool to see how invested and how involved the audience gets,” Neumann added. “Even if it’s their first time seeing a dance show and maybe they don’t know all the terminology or what’s impressive or what’s not, they get so excited and you can really feel that on stage and you can see it in the audience, too. It’s really special.”

While ballet keeps them busy, both Keck and Neumann enjoy when they’re able to return home to southwest Michigan.

“I love walking down Main Street in Niles,” Neumann said. “I definitely have to go to Veni’s and just walk along the river and I know there are some great summer festivals – I think we went to a Bluegrass Festival when I was home in the summer. Knowing my dad, you will always see somebody that you know, or somebody that he knows. I love that small town Vibe that we get to come back to.

“One of the most beautiful places nearby is actually Fernwood Botanical Gardens,” Keck said. “It’s a beautiful place to just go and lose yourself for a couple hours and I mean literally lose yourself. It’s happened a couple times.”

With every practice and performance, Keck and Neumann make their dreams a reality. The duo encourages everyone to follow their dreams, whatever they may be.

“Go for it and be committed,” Neumann said. “Show up, do your best, give your best and don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. I definitely had those moments in my career where people told me, ‘you could never be a professional dancer,’ ‘you don’t have X, Y and Z,’ ‘you don’t have the body type,’ or something like that and I’m just here to say, that’s not true.

“If it’s something that you love and you’re passionate about it – whether it’s dance arts, sports, singing, acting, whatever – if you’re really passionate about, go for it.”

“It’s also a really neat production because it involves the entire school,” Keck said. “You’ll get the little ones up there, you’ll get the pre-professional, the professional. It’s really inspiring for all ages to see and it’s fun.”