C-U Ballet brings new 'spin' to The Nutcracker

By Natalie Stewart

“I sat out in the audience during a dress rehearsal, and when snow fell from the sky, it was so magical I cried,” Greene said.

For 17 years, Champaign Urbana Ballet has been touching the hearts of people just like Greene with their annual performance of the classic ballet.

Although CU Ballet is not new to Tchaikovsky’s famous production, this year’s rendition is expected to be far from predictable, Greene, the company’s executive director said.

“‘The Nutcracker’ this year is definitely full of lots of surprises for the audience,” Greene said. “We’re very excited about that. The new set had been designed by Cory RodeheaverJT, and every year, he designed them to add something new and interesting, not only for the audience members but also for the dancers.”

The continuous changes to the performances each year keep the dancers on their toes, said Kevin BurnsideJT, who has performed as the nutcracker for the past two years.

“For all of us dancers, it’s kind of an exciting time because we don’t know what all of the new (set) entails, so as we get into rehearsals and tech week, we’re kind of learning what the new (set) will be,” Burnside said. “(One) entire scene is new, so I don’t know exactly what to expect when we get to the theater.”

Although revamping such a classic story is hard, all of the additions are sure to give audiences something new to get excited about, said Brent ReifsteckJT, one of the show’s producers.

“Our technical director who created all of these sets (took) bits and pieces of other productions all over the world to try and give it our own unique spin on the story,” he said. “It’s always a growing thing whenever you are an artist. It’s always trying to do something new that you haven’t done before, and you’ll see something that we haven’t done before.”

Reifsteck said audiences can expect to see many enhancements to every aspect of the show.

“We try to do something new every year,” he said. “This is a huge year. There’s almost no set piece or piece of the production physically, aside from costumes and some props, that was here last year. So all of the sets that you see and the projections and everything when you come to see the show are going to be new. And it’s not a new story, it’s just more of a re-imagined look.”

Burnside said one popular scene in particular is getting a major facelift, creating a new and interesting visual experience.

“The snow scene is the major part where ‘The Nutcracker’ comes to life. So in the first act, the battle scene, the Nutcracker is a nutcracker. He has the mask on, and he’s like a soldier,” he said. “During the snow scene, he transforms into a prince. So that entire act, the costumes, the staging are all new. It will be a completely different snow scene.”

For Reifsteck, it’s all about building off of previous performances in a production aspect.

“The old show was wonderful; (we) enjoyed it, and if we put it on today, we would have a great time, and we’d give the community something that they love,” he said. “Our job this time is to give them something new they can enjoy just as much.”

From the performing perspective, Burnside said improvement is the main goal.

“I think for me as a dancer, I look at it every night as a different challenge to go on stage and to perform and to act and to get the message across a little bit clearer than maybe I did the previous time,” Burnside said.

Burnside, who performs with CU Ballet in his free time in addition to a full-time job, said the show allows him to live out his passion and share it with the audience.

“It makes me feel like a kid again. It makes me feel like all things are possible,” he said. ”You have the Nutcracker, who Clara gets for Christmas, and for her, he becomes this object that she falls in love with, and then it becomes a person that protects her and takes care of her. It just makes me feel like dreams come true.”

Jonathan EbelJT, a University professor, said dancing in the performance also has a special meaning to him.

“This is my sixth time performing in Champaign Urbana Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.” I got into ballet because my three daughters, now ages 15, 12 and 9, have been dancing since they could walk,” he wrote in an email. “I have always loved performing. I sang and acted in high school and college, and ballet provides both a great outlet for those energies and an opportunity to be part of something beautiful with my daughters.”

Greene said the new improvements to the show are not the only things that make community members come back every year.

“To me, it just speaks to the holiday tradition and the bringing together of family, and I think for a lot of residents and our surrounding areas, it’s what they do,” Greene said. “It’s their tradition that they come to The Nutcracker every year, and they leave with a smile on their face. What a great gift to give somebody.”

Shows will be running at the Krannert Performing Arts Center from Dec. 3 to Dec. 6JT, with an Illini night on opening night with special rates for studentsJT.

Tickets can be bought online through the Krannert center websiteJT.

Greene added that the beauty of “The Nutcracker” makes the performance worth seeing over and over again.

“Just the athleticism and the grace of these dancers, who put so much of their heart (into it), and then they share their talents with our community,” Greene said. “It’s breathtaking what they do out there. It’s so beautiful.”

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