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Thursday, September 18, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Dance Wisconsin performs La Fille Mal Gardee at the Wisconsin Union Theater
Jo Jean Retrum's troupe hangs in there, economy be damned
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Ashley Dahm and Justin Bohan in <i>La Fille Mal Gardee</i>
Ashley Dahm and Justin Bohan in La Fille Mal Gardee

Madison Ballet canceled its last two shows of the 2008-09 season, but Jo Jean Retrum's Dance Wisconsin is hanging in there. Retrum's pre-professional troupe performs La Fille Mal Gardee at the Wisconsin Union Theater on Saturday (7:30 p.m.) and Sunday (2 p.m.), March 21 and 22. Times are tough for the arts, but Retrum is determined to go on with the show.

"I wouldn't cancel performances," she says. "You have to do them for your dancers or they won't grow. I'll do whatever it takes to get them exposure and experience."

Just how tough is Jo Jean Retrum? She was diagnosed with breast cancer last summer but stuck with her season as planned. "I had a mastectomy in October between the 'New Works' show and 'Nutcracker Fantasy,'" she says with a defiant laugh. "I wouldn't let them start chemo until after 'Nutcracker.'"

Retrum prides herself on working with volunteers to keep costs down. She looks askance at Madison Ballet's expenses for staff and professional dancers, especially in light of the troupe's cancelled shows.

"You're hiring professional dancers and you just give one performance? That's pretty sad. If I were one of those professional dancers [at Madison Ballet], I don't know if I would come back. That's a lot of money to put out and not do a show."

La Fille Mal Gardee is a 19th century comedy ballet about a young girl infatuated with a peasant boy. Her mother wants her to marry a rich man's son, so she has to hook up with her true love on the sly.

"It's a fun show for people who've never seen a ballet," Retrum says. The fun includes chickens, maypole dances, clogging dances, a big storm and lots of ribbons.

The leads are Ashley Dahm and Justin Bohan, the latter returning to Dance Wisconsin from the Milwaukee Ballet. Retrum has a track record of turning out dancers who go on to professional careers, the most famous of which is American Ballet Theatre's Ethan Stiefel.

"We just train them well here," Retrum says. "Justin [Bohan] started out as a little bonbon in my 'Nutcrackers.' It's wonderful to let them achieve their dreams."

Next season, Retrum plans to mount her annual "New Works" show and "Nutcraker Fantasy." She's being careful about finances, though, and is unsure if she'll do a spring show. If she does plan one, you can be sure she'll go through with it.

"You've got to have a passion to do this," Retrum says. "I don't make a lot of money, but I enjoy working with the kids. That's what keeps you going."

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