It would be enough if all that Fort Wayne Ballet had to do this fall was to prepare for their beloved annual production of The Nutcracker. After all, their December performance of the holiday classic has been a cornerstone in Fort Wayne’s celebratory slate of arts offerings for decades.
The 10-day run features their talented corps of company professionals — who come from all over the globe — and their many academy students and members of the community.
But since The Nutcracker auditions in September, things have been pretty busy for the 61-year-old organization. A couple of weeks after those auditions, the ballet presented their acclaimed fall performance which included pieces from the Arpino Trust and a newly commissioned piece, “Bolero,” choreographed by Fort Wayne Ballet’s Ballet Mistress Tracy Tritz. The company also completed the first level of national training curriculum with American Ballet Theatre which for the ballet’s artistic director Karen Gibbons-Brown confirmed that Fort Wayne Ballet is “right where we need to be.”
That training required some reconfiguring of rehearsals for The Nutcracker, but this was not the only complicating, though welcome, distraction. Eight members of the Fort Wayne Ballet company recently returned from an official visit to Fort Wayne sister city Taizhou in China, making the official government trip with Mayor Tom Henry.
“It is such an honor,” Gibbons-Brown said. “We want to be part of a cultural exchange like that, but it was a lot with everything else going on. But only eight of our company dancers went. During our American Ballet Theatre training, our faculty was busy with that so there were no rehearsals. But we worked around all of that. We started the rehearsals with the children before our fall performance, and since we’ve had fewer weeks due to the training, our rehearsals went from one hour to an hour-and-a-half. It’s been challenging, but this fall has also been exciting. I wouldn’t want to say no to any of it, but it’s a lot.”
In the midst of it all, the ballet also participated in the Amplify Arts campaign, eliciting votes for which music would be used for a new piece of choreography by David Ingram, a former company dancer and faculty member who is now teaching in North Carolina. His continued involvement is just one example of how Fort Wayne Ballet alumni return to share their talent and experience even as their careers have taken them miles away from Indiana.
Among the changes at Fort Wayne Ballet in the midst of this growth and activity was the arrival of Jim Sparrow, who had most recently been working for an arts organization, also in North Carolina. Having previously served for many years as the executive director of Arts United, Sparrow arrived back in Fort Wayne to serve as executive director of Fort Wayne Ballet, a role Gibbons-Brown had held along with her artistic director duties. Making that transition has likely been made easier since Gibbons-Brown and Sparrow have been married for many years.
“There is no way we could be doing all of this if Jim hadn’t come back to town,” Gibbons-Brown said. “Having him come in to handle those duties for the ballet has been very exciting and has really solidified the team.”
Having survived many of the outside activities, the ballet is now free to focus on The Nutcracker exclusively, and it’s none too soon since the calendar bump means this year’s production opens on Nov. 30. Although many aspects of the production are written in stone, Gibbons-Brown is fond of tweaking it over the years, including the addition of snow — in the theater and over the audience — during Act I’s climactic snow scene. She promises a few other new touches this year.
“We have new costumes,” she said. “Nan Possemato does a beautiful job, and we have new costumes for the flowers and new tutus. Some of the party ladies will have new costumes.”
Costumes are no small aspect of the show, and replacing them can be expensive, which is why it’s typically done on a rotating basis. In fact, pre-existing costumes figure prominently into casting since it’s necessary to put dancers into pieces already in the huge costume shop collection.
But there are a few other aspects to consider such as set, and this will be only the third year for the new Christmas tree which is featured so prominently in Act I.
No doubt that attention to detail is just one of the many reasons that Fort Wayne Ballet will be taking the show on the road this year, having been invited to perform in northwestern Pennsylvania.
“We got a call from Erie asking us to do the show there,” Gibbons-Brown said. “A woman on their board had seen our production, and they had been following us for a few years. So after we perform The Nutcracker here, we’ll be taking everything to Erie for some performances there. We won’t be taking the tree, but we’ll be packing up all of our other sets and costumes and of course our dancers.”
One other aspect of Fort Wayne Ballet’s Nutcracker tradition has also caught the attention of other communities and has become a signature of their annual holiday tradition.
The “Muttcracker” program, which began in 2010, has already resulted in more than 100 adoptions in those years. Not only do dogs participate in the opening party scene (to the delight of the audience), but they are available for visiting at a booth in the lobby. With personnel from Animal Care and Control available to answer questions, adoption proceedings can begin on the spot.
The program has also increased foot traffic at an otherwise slow time, also leading to the adoption of pets to forever homes. It’s a program near and dear to the heart of Gibbons-Brown, who has fostered and adopted many dogs over the years.
“In the first year I think maybe I was overthinking it, thinking, ‘what if…what if…what could go wrong.’ But it’s been surprisingly simple to incorporate, and it’s been a lovely opportunity for me to combine both of my worlds. And it’s been another way for Fort Wayne Ballet to give back to the community which has been so good to us.
“We so appreciate how Fort Wayne and this entire area have embraced us over the years, and we’re happy to serve our community in any way we can.”