This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Champaign Urbana Ballet’s The Nutcracker. What is now an annual tradition, and a part of many families’ holiday celebrations, started back in 1997, when the then-brand-new CU Ballet company presented selections from The Nutcracker with only sixteen cast members in the lobby of the Champaign Public Library. Over the past two decades, it has grown enormously and now features over 130 dancers in two different casts performing at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts--and this year, they’ll be performing over two weekends.

Smile Politely sat down with Kay Greene, the executive director of CU Ballet, to discuss CU Ballet’s history, the 20th anniversary, and where they’re going next.

Smile Politely: Can you tell me about how it all got started?

Kay Greene: Well I wasn’t there. I’ve been with the company for about five years now. But I do know it started on a park bench, with a conversation between Deanna Doty and Bonnie Ziegler and Donna Warwick, and the three of them are brainstorming. Deanna wanted to have a ballet company, and to put on shows. And both Bonnie and Donna had daughters who were taking dance classes from Deanna. And it just so happened that Deanna had the artistic talent, and Bonnie knew all the rules of order and how to organize a board, and Donna had the personality--to help fundraise. And they knocked it out of the park. The first performance wasn’t the complete ballet, it was only part of The Nutcracker, and it was in the Champaign Public Library. It only had sixteen cast members. And so it went from the Champaign Public Library to Parkland and then ended up at Krannert in 2003, which was not too long after they were formed. It’s fun and it’s amazing how much it has grown. There’s so many people--the number of volunteers! And it’s all those who have come before me. They’re the ones who have gotten us where we are. Not only the founders, but the volunteers and the dancers.

When I look back, the one constant that was always there was the quality. It truly reflects Deanna's leadership and vision. And the dancers, the volunteers... Everyone had that contagious enthusiasm. Everything that went on stage was handmade. That’s still the case. Some of those things never change. Which I think is remaining true to our mission, and I find it heartwarming.

SP: So those are some major changes over the last twenty years. How much does The Nutcracker change from year to year?

Greene: Well, in 2015 it changed a lot. We brought a whole new Nutcracker to the stage — new sets. We finally had a forest with trees! This year we’re actually finishing off that scene, so the audience will see the roots grow before your eyes — for the eerie forest. That will be done.

Cory Rodeheaver was our scenic designer for the new Nutcracker. He was so creative and smart with the way that he did it. He created this new design in a way that every year we can add something new, to keep it fresh and new and exciting for the audience.

And of course, the costumes are always changing. This year we have new ribbon candy costumes and the dreamsicles --the dreamy colors of lime green and dreamsicle orange and lemon--the land of sweets! It looks like a bunch of taffee in a bowl. They’re new this year.

We are bringing a little bit of the old Nutcracker back this year. There’s a little vintage Nutcracker at the end of Act One. One of the favorite parts that I think long time goers will recognize and appreciate.

SP: What’s the age range for the cast?

Greene: Five to 65. On stage. Which is kinda fun, right?

We’re also excited to partner with CU Symphony Orchestra again. You know, we have lots of little children that come from all over to be in the show, and we tell them there’s going to be a live orchestra. But I don’t think they really know what that means. So on dress rehearsal night, it’s fun to watch them on stage and hear something new and be like “What’s that?!” and try to peek over the edge of the stage to see them.

And some cast members are repeating cast members. Those lead roles take hours and hours to learn. Eli Ochs, who plays the Cavalier, he started out as one of the little kids and has come all the way up to the Cavalier. A lot of them grow up right on stage.

It’s a family. The Nutcracker is family. CU ballet is a family.

There’s this little boy. Elliot Denmead. He was in the Nutcracker for two years, but he recently moved overseas. He sent a cute note about how he was going to miss The Nutcracker this year. His parents first brought him when he was really young and he said “I’m gonna do that one day.” They brought him the next year and he said the same thing. Then, when he was in kindergarten, he brought home a school flyer for auditions. And he auditioned and was in it for two years. And then he sent that cute note this year. That’s what I mean about the family. He felt part of something special.

SP: And what’s it like working with Deanna Doty, the artistic director and one of the founders of CU Ballet?

Greene: I am amazed at how her brain works. It’s a true artist at work. She sees things that I would look at and go, “What are you talking about?” She imagines how she wants things to look. Every detail that happens, she has a vision for it. What I love about her, too, is the way she praises the dancers for their creativity. Like when the kids are doing the party scene and they’re into their roles. Tthey’ll be doing things that aren’t necessarily a part of the choreography, but it’s perfect, and she calls them out and says its wonderful.

These are her kids. That’s the one thing I know about her. She believes in these kids and wants to be a positive impact on their lives. They won’t all be professional dancers, of course. But she wants to teach them to make a difference in the community. To have the confidence to take on a challenge, to understand the importance of  mentoring, to give back, to work hard. Work ethic and values are of the utmost importance. She’s helping raise good kids. She loves them. She really does.

To think about what she’s done in this community for the past 20 years. It’s a little gem of an organization in this community.

We made a pact this year. We said, “Hey, we are having fun this year!” It’s so easy to get caught up in other stuff, but this year we decided that having fun is at the top of our list. I hope it's contagious and we have fun all around--fun for everyone.  

SP: And how about the next twenty years? Where are you going from here?

Greene: Well. I think that we just get stronger. We get stronger. We become even more embedded in our community. We work hard so that we continue to delight our audiences and inspire kids to learn about the classical arts. If we don’t show them and share it with them, they may never experience it.

The Nutcracker will be at the Krannert Center for Performing Arts December 1-3 and December 9-10. For tickets and more information go here

Photos provided by Darrell Hoemann.