Five decades of dance

(First published in the December 5, 2019 issue of City Pages)

The annual Nutcracker show this weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Central Wisconsin School of Ballet


Director Patrik Kasper in partial costume as Drosselmeier during rehearsal for Nutcracker

For thousands of Wausau residents, holiday memories and plans include the annual production of The Nutcracker at the Grand Theater, by the Central Wisconsin School of Ballet. An enchanting program featuring wee dancers, young ballet students, local actors, and guest professional dancers, this cornerstone of Wausau’s Yuletide would never have been laid without the vision of Yaqub (Jack) and Waltraud (Madame) Karkar.

     This year’s Nutcracker will mark the 50th anniversary of the school, which in many ways has shaped the cultural landscape of Wausau. Waltraud Karkar is indeed legendary. Few people in Wausau have had such a widespread, revered reputation. Generations have known her as a glamorously stern teacher and fierce advocate of the performing arts, who preferred to be called “Madame Karkar.”

     Some students complained that Waltraud was scary. But as my daughter, Molly, who danced there for 10 years says, “She was strict, but she always wrote the sweetest, most personal notes… She taught me so much. When we traveled for a tour or went to see professional ballets, she instilled in us the importance of being polite in public and representing the school well.”

     The Karkars didn’t come to Wausau to start a school. Jack and Waltraud Karkar moved to Wausau in 1969 when he took a job here as an economics professor. They envisioned staying only a few years. Meanwhile, Waltraud, a lifelong dancer, began teaching ballet classes in their home (the building long known as the Everest Inn, which earlier this year became a Catholic convent).

     Waltraud was born in Germany, had been dancing since she was a child and continued training into adulthood. She trained in Europe with Joan Lawson of the Royal Ballet. Here in the U.S., she studied at the Stone-Camryn School of Ballet in Chicago and the Joffrey Ballet in New York.

     Madame Karkar’s ballet classes in Wausau were so popular that soon, due to traffic congestion, the city suggested she find a less residential area for the school. In 1975, the Central Wisconsin School of Ballet moved to 113 S. Second St. In 1992, the school found its permanent home in the former Mary Poor Chapel on Third Avenue.

     Via connections Madame Karkar had made throughout her career, she was able to bring a veritable “who’s who” of dance instructors to Wausau, including Irina Kolpakova, former ballet mistress for the American Ballet Theatre and her husband, famed Russian dancer, Vladilen Semenov.

     As the ballet school grew, the Karkars also worked to bring more dance into the area. In those early years, the Karkars even paid to have the Grand Theater soft-wired so that professional ballet companies could perform there when the Grand was still a movie house. Waltraud and Jack often went door to door promoting ballet shows and selling tickets.

     Waltraud was also the driving force in the restoration of Wausau’s Stewart Park on 10th Street. When she learned that some of the early lumber barons’ daughters, who had been devotees of the iconoclastic dancer Isadora Duncan, had performed in the park, she contacted their descendants to raise funds to restore the stage. CWSB continues to present their own summer performances in the park each year.

     In 1973, CWSB began performing the second act of The Nutcracker at Wausau West High School. The show quickly became a family favorite and in 1975, the school launched the full production, and eventually moved the performance to the Grand Theater.

     Composed by Tchaikovsky for the Russian Imperial Ballet, The Nutcracker has become one of the most popular, and most often performed ballets of all time. In the story, Clara receives a nutcracker doll from her Godfather Drosselmeier at the family Christmas party, and later has dreams of magical adventures with the now animated Nutcracker.

     For many years, in the weeks leading up to performances, Madame Karkar would visit area schools to promote the show and develop an interest in children who might otherwise never attend a ballet.

     Waltraud’s son, Patrik Kasper, who now runs the school’s programs, says this is a message he still instills in young performers, reminding them that the power of The Nutcracker is to attract people for the first time to dance and theatre, and that it’s an opportunity to nurture a family tradition and to turn a newcomer into a lifelong lover of the performing arts.

     Waltraud and the school have garnered countless awards and accolades. Newsweek once referred to CWSB’s production as one of the nine most notable Nutcracker shows in the U.S.



Jack and Waltraud Karkar, with student Elizabeth Clancy, in October.

In 1998, Waltraud was named one of the great American dance teachers in Dance Magazine. She was also the first to receive an honorary degree from the Isadora Duncan International Institute to teach dance to children. Locally, she’s been honored by the YWCA with the Women of Vision award and an Athena Award from the Chamber of Commerce.

     Among the thousands of children to study at the ballet school, several went on to dance professionally, including: Karissa Stich (Milwaukee Ballet), Melissa Anderson (Milwaukee Ballet), Jeanene Russell Perry (Bolshoi Ballet and North Carolina Dance Theatre), and Kelly Kohnert (who appeared in Cats and The Hot Mikado and with the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes).

     For the past few years, Waltraud, now 80, has stepped back from the school’s day-to-day operations. Her son Patrik Kasper, a former dancer with the Milwaukee Ballet, has been teaching choreography and dancing with the school for 22 years, and for the past 10 years, has taken over the artistic and creative endeavors. Jack, 94, still lends a hand with some of the business aspects, especially during the busy Nutcracker season.

     The performance, in addition to being a holiday tradition for countless families around the area, also gives students the chance to perform the classic with professional dancers from around the world. One of the most notable is Misty Copeland, who appeared in CWSB’s Nutcracker in 2013, shortly before she gained wide fame in U.S. pop culture as a celebrity ballet dancer.

     Its lavish sets and costumes, and spectacular dance numbers, make CWSB’s Nutcracker one of the most professional-looking local productions in Wausau. The story remains unchanged, but each year, subtle changes are made to give repeat viewers something fresh. This year, several dances have new costumes and new choreography, including Chocolate (the Spanish dance), Coffee (The Arabian Dance), and Tea (the Chinese Dance).

     There’s no denying that seeing the Nutcracker each year is a family tradition in the area. For many years, it was a family thing for the Karkars as well. In the 2000s, daughter Annaluna would choreograph, teach and occasionally perform in the show. Kasper continues to perform the role of the mysterious Drosselmeier. This year, his four-year-old son, Auden will appear as the little prince.