CU Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker is many things. A showcase for the dancers studying at the CU Ballet Academy. The perfect blend of town and gown. Live performance at it best; with dancers responding to live music (courtesy of the esteemed Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra. But for many of us, it is the kick off to the holiday season.

To experience The Nutcracker live is to return to one of the purest expressions of holiday joy. Within the first few notes of the overture we are transformed, transported back to a sense of childlike awe. We feel the vibrations of the instruments in our bones. Our eyes widen at the kaleidoscope of shapes and colors. And in the young dancers who make up much of this large cast, we reconnect with a time when seasonal celebrations were more about dreaming and less about completing to-do lists. 

In preparing for this preview I came across many a tale of typically twitchy and restless children sitting in silent rapture for much of the first act. The Nutcracker not only provides a perfect introduction to dance for young audiences. It reminds all of us to bring that sense of wonder and awe to the theatre and throughout the season. While in the past I have struggled against the more problematic aspects of The Nutcracker's narrative, I may have let my critic's mind miss the larger point. The Nutcracker is about the power of dreams and imagination. Clara dreams herself into a world where she becomes a brave shero. And each of the CU Ballet dancers have worked hard all year to not only make their own dreams a reality, but to recreate this magnificient piece of performance magic for our community. 

Another key to The Nutcracker's enduring power its ability to inspire and sustain re-envisionings by choreographers and directors across the globe. It has become a tradition to adapt the work to incorporate a bit of local culture. Last year we saw the introduction of the Dairy Barn, who took over for Mother Ginger. 

Anxious to hear about what CU Ballet had in store for us this year, I reached out to artistic director director Deanna Doty.  Her sneak peek is bound to get you as excited for this week's opening as I am. 


Smile Politely: How would you describe this annual tradition to someone experiencing it for the first time?

Deanna Doty: The Nutcracker is a truly magical journey for all ages. From the opening scene at the Stahlbaum family party to the epic battle and snow-covered forest, audience members are transported to an unforgettable land of sweets. With live music from The Champaign Urbana Symphony Orchestra, this professional-quality production features award-winning sets, beautifully hand-crafted costumes, talented and committed dancers who, year after year, are honored to bring this production to life.

SP: For returning fans, is there anything new we can expect this year?

Doty: The dancing Russians—an audience favorite—returns to the stage, and a newly costumed Chinese Butterfly leads her merry dragon across the stage. And, of course, we’re very excited for the return of our baby calves who made their adorable debút last year. And, we must give a warm welcome to Dr. Eric Helfer from Christie Clinic who is new addition to our Party Dad line-up.

SP: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers? 

Doty: For the first time in our history, we have cast members from 18 different communities and seven different counties, so I think we’ve captured the meaning of “community”. I’m, personally, very excited to have several CU Ballet alumni returning to The Nutcracker this year. Erica Johnston has returned from New York to recreate the role of Arabian Princess, which she last danced in 2008. Our alumni who are backstage helping quick change dancers in and out of costume and managing both sides of the stage are a gift. No one knows the show better than they do, and their contribution is priceless.

So this weekend, put down the shopping list, and come to Krannert with your inner-child's heart and imagination. Holidays are meant to be shared with family and friends. For fans of dance, the CU Ballet family continues to provide the support and training for young dancers that makes us all believe in the power of dreams. 

CU Ballet's The Nutcracker
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Tryon Festival Theatre
500 S Goodwin Ave., Urbana
December 5th and 6th, 7:30 pm
December 7th, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
December 8th, 2 p.m. and 6 p.m.

Get ticket information here

Photos by Darrell Hoemann