Five years removed from the move that put them right in the heart of the downtown arts district, Fort Wayne Ballet has had a lot to celebrate in recent years. This year they’ll celebrate a remarkable milestone, their 60-year history, with a series of special events and a season which features some Fort Wayne firsts.

To kick things off, the ballet will host a special gala on Friday, September 23 at the Mirro Center, a festive evening to commemorate Fort Wayne Ballet’s long history of bringing classical and modern dance performance to the city. Tickets for the gala are $150, but if that’s out of your price range, there are still more opportunities to join in the fun that weekend. With the fall performance taking place that Saturday (with an evening performance) and Sunday (with a matinee), there are additional gatherings planned to honor the kickoff of Season 60. Prior to the Saturday performance, a cocktail reception will be held in the Ian Rolland Gallery, just above the Arts United stage where the dancers will begin at 8 p.m. A Jubilee Celebration will also take place following that performance.

While those gatherings provide the community with a chance to celebrate along with Fort Wayne Ballet, the most important thing to celebrate is the season, one filled with some returning favorites and exciting debuts.

The fall production will be highlighted by the return of “Birthday Variations,” a piece which Fort Wayne Ballet has been granted permission to perform by the Gerald Arpino Foundation. Kim Sagami of the Joffrey Ballet will return to help prepare the piece which, although performed by the ballet a couple of times in recent years, will feature many new dancers, part of the ballet’s growing and evolving professional corps. But in addition to the classical works, the fall performance always strives to show the depth and diversity of the dancers’ talents. What better way to accomplish that than to bring back some of the ballet’s most distinguished alumni.

“We are hoping to bring some of our alumni in to help us celebrate this anniversary with us,” says Karen Gibbons-Brown, executive and artistic director of Fort Wayne Ballet.

“Our fall show will feature choreography from Jane Lanier, who is an alum who left Fort Wayne to become Broadway royalty. She had a lovely career on Broadway and was nominated for a Tony Award. She had come back to town last summer to choreograph Mary Poppins for the Civic, and I connected with her then, and it was like we’d known each other all our lives. She came and taught at our summer program and is working with us on our fall show.”

While that September weekend promises to be a hectic one – with three parties and two performances – behind the scenes another major production will already be underway. Auditions for the ballet’s annual holiday tradition, The Nutcracker, will have taken place two weeks earlier on September 11, which means as they put the finishing touches on the fall performance, long hours will also include the complicated casting decisions which allow many of the ballet academy’s students to participate. In fact, an informational meeting for parents of The Nutcracker cast members takes place the same weekend that the ballet is immersed in parties and performances.

That kind of overlap underscores the time it takes to put on The Nutcracker each year, something which might surprise people who assume it’s just the same show every year. With significant cast changes each year (costumes are costly, so casting is often determined by which children fit into which outfits) the logistics of The Nutcracker are extensive. Additionally, there’s an effort each year to do something a bit different. This year will be no exception.

“There will be some additions to the sets this year, and we’re hoping to have a new tree,” says Gibbons-Brown. “We try to always have something new and different. Of course, one thing that doesn’t change is that the Fort Wayne Philharmonic will be joining us again this year for the first three performances.”

Rounding out the season will be a classic and well-known ballet which has never been performed in its entirety in this area before: Swan Lake. Those who may wish a preview of this iconic piece should also consider attending the fall production in September when Act II will be performed in full for the 60th season debut. But for its first full presentation of Swan Lake, Fort Wayne Ballet will bring their professional corps of dancers to the spotlight, a group which features nine professionals, six apprentices and six trainees. Among them will be six new faces to the ballet, a sign of its constant growth.

Aside from their usual scheduling of three full-length productions on their main stage at the Arts United Center, Fort Wayne Ballet also hosts its annual Family Series, less formal presentations intended for young audiences with shorter attention spans. Usually running about 30-40 minutes, the performances take place in the ballet studios in their home at the Auer Center for Arts and Culture. This year’s Series will include The Firebird (October 15), The Little Prince (January 28) and Celebrating Dr. Seuss (March 4). Each show will have two performances (10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m.) and include a chance for youngsters to interact with the Youth Company members who perform.

In the last couple of years, with the addition of the ArtsLab in the Auer Center, Fort Wayne Ballet has been offering a pair of special, intimate performances specifically tailored to that space. This year those will include Love Notes in February and Progressions in May, the latter highlighted by both an indoor ticketed performance as well as the annual Fort Wayne Ballet, Too, an outdoor piece that is open to the public and continues inside for ticket holders.

Being able to share this milestone with Fort Wayne as well as growing their number of performances over the years is part of the ballet’s commitment to its community, something Gibbons-Brown thinks is the cornerstone of their success.

“Our success for 60 years is thanks to the foresight of those who came ahead of us and made us what we are in the community,” she says. “Our dancers are a beautiful group of young people who believe in art first – that dance is more important than just their pleasure in dancing – and who support the mission of Fort Wayne Ballet in its place in the community. We are grateful that this community has supported us for all these years, and it’s important to us to give back to them.”