By Julianne Homokay
Special to The Alpine Mountaineer
For 26 years and counting, Tom Ruzika, the lighting designer for Lake Arrowhead Classical Ballet Company’s The Nutcracker, has lent his time and prodigious talents to this production, which gives the Lake Arrowhead School of Dance’s students the chance to be on stage with professional dancers.
The students also benefit from working with professional designers, including Ruzika, costume designer Toni Veronick (featured in The Alpine Mountaineer dated Sept. 16) and Tony Gardner, designer of the mouse and nutcracker heads.
“I’ve got to do something for my community,” says Ruzika and, when it involves the kids, Ruzika is all in.
Ruzika began his artistic life as an organist, which got him into his high school auditorium. That’s where he started doing lighting for a dollar an hour. From there, he went on to California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, and then to a job at UC Irvine, where he headed the lighting program in the theatre department.
“I wanted to do big projects,” he says, so he worked a deal with the university to apply himself to an outside professional career that included Broadway shows, professional regional theatre, theme parks and the formation of his own company.
His company’s vision statement is: “Create Light. Design Shadows.” And this approach informs every lighting project he takes on, including The Nutcracker. “Lighting is orchestrating,” he says. “Lighting and music go hand-in-hand.” And “having shadows makes it more dramatic.” He applies this aesthetic to each medium in which he and his company work, whether it be the performing arts, theme parks or architectural lighting for hotels, casinos, retail spaces or restaurants.
“I just find working with light fun and exciting and powerful,” he says. And his aesthetic has served him well. He has received numerous Critics Circle Awards, international design awards and a Lighting Dimensions Designer of the Year award.
So how did Ruzika become connected to Lake Arrowhead Classical Ballet Company? He and his wife, Donna, bought a place in Crestline 37 years ago. And ice skating is the man’s Zen place. “I was a rink rat over at the Ice Castle and I’m pretty sure Sharon [Sharon McCormick, artistic director of LACBC] found me there.” Why did he sign on? “I’d never done a Nutcracker,” he says. But, “I played the full Nutcracker Suite on the organ, all by memory. I do have this long, weird history with The Nutcracker.”
He also has a long history with community service. For example, an elementary school in Carlsbad, recently received bond money for updates and renovations, and an architect friend called Ruzika for help to revamp the new central courtyard, where kids and parents could gather for singing and concerts. His friend told him that he probably wouldn’t be paid for this effort. But Ruzika didn’t care; he had so much fun. He set up “three staging areas, defined by lighting. That was enough for me to go ‘Yup, that’s worth it.’ And now these are areas that can be used for concerts by the kids.”
What Ruzika was too modest to reveal is that he also donates his time to the Rim of the World students who are interested in lighting. According to McCormick, he could hang the plot in a day himself with an assistant. “But he comes in, and spends hours and hours with these kids,” helping them learn how to do lighting, she says. In terms of all the professional designers who contribute to the production, she says “the fact that they donate their time and talents is just priceless to us.”
Lake Arrowhead Classical Ballet Company’s production of The Nutcracker will be held Friday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are available at arrowheadballet.org.