To many, including myself, The Nutcracker is as integral a part of the Christmas season, as twinkling lights and fresh snow. When I was a kid, still dreaming of being a ballerina the way that many little girls do, my grandma took me to my first Nutcracker production in Michigan. It became a yearly tradition; even after I (mostly) gave up my ballet dreams, I still enjoyed watching the dancers portray the strange-yet-charming story of Clara and her Nutcracker prince defeating the rats and traveling to the Land of Sweets, where they’re treated to an array of dances from around the world. Thanks to the CU Ballet — this year celebrating the 20th anniversary of their annual production — I can resume the tradition here in Illinois.

CU Ballet’s Nutcracker is a beautiful, colorful production, staged in the Krannert Center’s lovely Festival Theatre. The show makes use of some dazzling lighting effects and sets; the forest at the end of Act I was one of my favorites, but all of the visual effects together created a wonderfully immersive world. And the music! The acoustics in Krannert’s spaces are excellent, and the Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra provides live accompaniment to the performance, for which it deserved its own standing ovation.

It’s the dancers that tie it all together, though, of course, and they gave a fantastic performance. Lara Morgan beautifully danced the challenging role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in the production that I attended, bringing the appearance of effortless elegance to even the most difficult sequences. Amalia Bollero’s Clara had a lovely grace to her movements both with the Nutcracker doll and with the prince. The artistry and emotion of most of the dancers added an expressiveness to the performance that went beyond simply mastering the choreography. There was a playfulness in many of the dances, particularly from the Land of Sweets, which I loved—the Ribbon Candy dance being among my favorites—and the littlest children stole their scenes (with Mother Ginger, for example) through sheer adorableness.

Those familiar with the “traditional” version of The Nutcracker might notice a few small changes to the story in the CU Ballet production; for example, they’ve has added a brief prologue featuring Drosselmeier placing finishing touches on his Nutcracker during the overture and changed a few details of the conflict between Clara, the Nutcracker, and the Rat Queen. The CU Ballet also varies certain details of its own production from one year to the next: I noticed, for example, that this year the vessel which transports the Nutcracker and Clara to the Land of Sweets was different from last year. These little surprises are a fun way to make a familiar production feel fresh, especially for those who attend year after year.

The CU Ballet’s Nutcracker is a great choice if you’re looking to expand your list of holiday traditions; it’s also a great way to take a break from the busy season if you need one. The performance has an impressive level of professionalism and polish, and on top of that, it’s just fun. Here’s hoping the CU Ballet keeps the annual production going for another 20 years and beyond.

The Nutcracker will continue performances Dec. 8th to 10th at varying times. For tickets and more information click here

Editors Note: This article has been altered since its original publication to include photos from this year's production. Photos provided by Darell Hoemann.