Already deep into its 60th anniversary celebration, Fort Wayne Ballet is preparing now to present its most popular production of its annual calendar of events and performances. With The Nutcracker a celebrated and beloved part of Fort Wayne's holiday traditions (and ranked by the Wall Street Journal as one of the top five productions of the show in the country), it has also been a crucial part of the history of Fort Wayne Ballet as well.
"As we're celebrating our 60th anniversary, we're also celebrating our 58th year of doing The Nutcracker," says Karen Gibbons-Brown, executive and artistic director for Fort Wayne Ballet. "Back in the day, ballet companies didn't do the full Nutcracker. They'd do Fantasia and maybe the 'Nutcracker Suite.' It wasn't until companies like the San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet began doing the full-length Nutcracker that it began spreading to other communities and became a seasonal performance in America. Europe is completely different from us, and you can maybe see The Nutcracker in March there. It's just a different way of life."
Each year Gibbons-Brown tries to bring something new to the production to keep it fresh not only for the audience but for those at Fort Wayne Ballet who work hard to put it together each year. It's that desire to renew along with the necessity to repair, restore or replace settings and costumes in a staggered way to defray prohibitive expense that changes are made each year to the essential pieces of the show. This year that project was the tree which appears as Clara's adventure with the Nutcracker begins.
"Everything has a life cycle," says Gibbons-Brown. "Our tree had outlived its life cycle. It needed refurbishing, and it had become too heavy to fly out anymore the way it has. We want to create magic, but we need to create it safely. We have to address the different parts of the show gradually, so we aren't replacing everything all at once."
The same goes for the costumes, and following the retirement of Fort Wayne Ballet's longtime costume designer, the able team of Nan Possemato and Blaise Moore are bringing newly refurbished as well as brand new costumes to the production. The stage will also feature recently renovated sets and backdrops created by Jon Sandmeier. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes at least that to stage The Nutcracker. That is further evidenced by the number of performances and backstage volunteers which make the nine performances possible.
"There will be 130 people on stage in each performance," says Gibbons-Brown. "There are some roles that are double cast so they alternate performance, so with that in mind, we have over 200 performers this year. And for every one of those dancers, we have five people behind the scenes that make it possible for them to perform."
While the show features both professionals and students from Fort Wayne Ballet, there is one special cast member, Jim Schmidt, who is celebrating his 20th year as Drosselmeyer, the magical figure who directs Clara through her adventure. His tenure in the role matches Gibbons-Brown's history with Fort Wayne Ballet, so it's no wonder she has come to rely on him even as other changes dramatically alter personnel over the years.
"It would be such a different Nutcracker without him," she says. "He's such a wonderful person and has done this for 20 years, but every year he does something a little different and embellishes his performance in some new way. I have such respect for him not only as a person but as an artist. It's such a gift that he does this for us every year."
Also key among the performers is the inclusion of children of all ages, one of the things that makes Fort Wayne Ballet's production truly special. As both a professional company and an elite academy, The Nutcracker provides FWB students a unique opportunity to gain performance experience.
"There are a lot of performances of The Nutcracker which feature only adults, but they aren't as heartwarming. We include children because that's our life. We like to show a child the hope and promise, and with all of the ugliness that surrounds them, we like to offer hope and light. The young and the young at heart never give up that quest, and it never gets old to offer that hope and light to our audiences."
Among the special touches which Gibbons-Brown has brought to The Nutcracker each year are changes to the opening party scene. Several years ago she began casting a young baby as part of the scene, and that will happen again this year. The infants are usually connected in some way to FWB, either through the staff or the families of students, and this year's baby will only be a few weeks old by the time The Nutcracker opens on December 2. As rehearsals opened in fact the Nutcracker baby had yet to be born.
Also new to the production is the inclusion of a young member of the audience to play one of the party children. This will be the second year that one lucky audience member of a certain size (a girl who can fit into the costume) is chosen before the show begins and asked to participate, providing a truly unusual (and definitely unexpected) stage debut for some lucky young lady. Once chosen, Gibbons-Brown says they can have her ready to take the stage in costume, makeup and hair in 10 minutes time.
And finally, since 2010 the cast has included the Muttcrackers which come to the party as well. A now beloved moment in the show, the Muttcrackers are dogs in need of homes, brought to the production each night thanks to Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control. In addition to taking the stage during the party scene, the Muttcrackers are then available for visiting during the show's intermission. In the six previous seasons of the Muttcracker program, Gibbons-Brown reports that more than 70 dogs have been placed into forever homes thanks to the connections made during The Nutcracker.
Sugar Plum Parties will follow each matinee performance, and the Fort Wayne Philharmonic - featuring its new assistant conductor Caleb Young - will be present for the first three performances of the run. Gibbons-Brown says there's nothing quite like that experience when the dancers perform with a live orchestra. And she understands that the sense of community which comes from such collaboration and these annual traditions have helped build Fort Wayne from within.
"All those years ago when Fort Wayne Ballet began doing The Nutcracker, our community has really embraced that as part of our holiday tradition. And we have in turn really embraced our community. It's what makes Fort Wayne special. We take care of each other."