With the world turned upside down, and travel and special event plans on hiatus because of the pandemic, the curtailment of ways to support the youth being served by Make-A-Wish Illinois provided a flash of inspiration for choreographer and director Linda Cunningham of Batavia.
The children need some joy, and dance and music are very cathartic and healing, said Cunningham, who is pairing dancers with recipients who are treated to a personalized dance created just for them.
"Dancers that are very heartfelt for what they do and very technically excellent, so they can achieve the goal of what the wish recipient wants and needs to fill their soul," Cunningham said of the pairing, noting she believes in the cause of Make-A-Wish Illinois wholeheartedly.
She previously had granted the wish of a child in a wheel chair to appear in a dance production at her former State Street Dance Studio in Geneva, the kind of wish the pandemic has made impossible for now.
She has a great talent pool to draw on for the new project.
Cunningham has been directing an annual production of "The Nutcracker" at The Hemmens Cultural Center in Elgin, in collaboration with the Chicago Ballet Conservatory, a pre-professional classical ballet program of the Mohler Dance Academy in Bloomingdale.
The first two performers are Micaela Sebby, 18, of Geneva and Kera Fernstrom, 13, of Bartlett.
"These two dancers are just amazing," Cunningham said. "One of the things that dancers have in common – they all are compassionate, creative. This is going to be very moving."
Sebby is about to record the first Make-A-Wish dance for Elizabeth, 16, of Teutopolis, south of Champaign.
"This has always been why I dance," Sebby said. " … To tell other people's stories and to bring joy when there might not be a lot of happiness. This is a really special project because I'm doing exactly that. I'm bringing this beautiful piece to a girl who loves to dance and doesn't always have the chance to. The whole piece is her story. I'm excited to bring that story … out in the world."
Sebby said she and Elizabeth have been collaborating closely on how to tell the story. It will be set to the song "Unstoppable" by Sia.
"I asked Elizabeth what songs she felt hit close to home," Sebby said. "When I brought that song up to her, [there was] no hesitation."
Sebby is co-choreographing the contemporary piece with one of her dance teachers, Tressa Mohler, and it will be recorded at the academy.
Sebby, who has been dancing since she was 3, heads off to the University of Alabama in August as a dance major, with plans for a career in dance.
The piece she is creating for Elizabeth starts with the dancer on the floor almost in defeat, to evince what it was like when Elizabeth was too ill to dance, she said.
"As the song starts to build, the choreography gets stronger and it's more powerful," Sebby said. "It … ends on a strong note to show she is truly unstoppable and strong and she can get through it and she's a warrior. We tried to emphasize that journey from being defeated to being on top."
The next recipient is Natalie, 18, of Chicago. She has been paired with Fernstrom, who has danced the role of Clara twice in Cunningham's "Nutcracker," and most recently had the role of Snow Queen.
"Natalie wants it to be a powerful, strong, stress-relieving piece," said Fernstrom, who will discuss with Natalie what music she'd like her to use.
Fernstrom will co-choreograph the piece with her teacher at Mohler Dance Academy, Lauren Blane Bogren.
"I will be doing a ballet piece en pointe to a modern day song or modern music," said Fernstrom, who has been taking dance since she was 2 years old.
She already is working on choreography elements to incorporate in her piece for Natalie.
"I'm so humbled and honored to have been given this honor … to even have been considered. … There's no words to express how happy I am," Fernstrom said. "Dancing for people and making them happy is what makes me happy when I dance."
Fernstrom's future goals are to join a company as a ballet dancer, and later in her career to teach dance.
The dance project is one of the ways volunteers are adapting to assist Make-A-Wish.
"A lot of our travel wishes have been postponed – in the meantime, our volunteers are working really hard to keep them engaged and keep building on that hope and resilience we like to build on that Make-A-Wish journey," said Jessica Miller, senior communications manager for Make-A-Wish Illinois. "Linda came forward to put them together with a professional dancer – an incredible way to bring community together and to let these kids know that people are thinking about them."
Both Natalie and Elizabeth also have travel wishes. Natalie's is to see Greece.
"That anticipation and planning is an important part of the process," Miller said. "It does bring them out of their daily concerns … gives them time to dream about their futures."
Fans of dance may have a chance to view these special numbers by Sebby and Fernstrom, depending on the wish recipient's preference, Miller said.
Cunningham said she has invited Elizabeth to make a cameo appearance in her production of "The Nutcracker," which is on hold until 2021. And she's already thinking of ways the experience of the pandemic may figure into the staging next year. She changes it thematically each time and casts international guest artists.
"Chicago Ballet Conservatory is dedicated and determined to bring the communities together through arts, music and dance – [a] global collaboration," she said. "So many have lost loved ones to the virus. [We] are going to need things like the arts more than ever.
"It's such an honor and privilege to do what you love in life and pay it forward," Cunningham said. "We all need a little more love. We need to help each other."