Fort Wayne Ballet’s annual performance of The Nutcracker is one of the city’s favorite holiday traditions. Now 63 years old, Fort Wayne Ballet has performed the full ballet for most of that long history.
“Doing The Nutcracker wasn’t really in vogue yet,” said Karen Gibbons-Brown, Fort Wayne Ballet’s Artistic Director. “When the ballet here was first founded, they started by just doing the ‘Nutcracker Suite.’ We don’t have a record of when the first performance of the full ballet was, but a conservative estimate would be 55 years that Fort Wayne Ballet has been doing the full Nutcracker.”
Growth of local dancers
Gibbons-Brown has been in the city for more than 20 of those performances now. She has brought much to the growth of the ballet which has in turn led to more dazzling performances. For one, it was less than 10 years ago that Fort Wayne Ballet had to hire outside male dancers to handle Sugar Plum Cavalier duties. Now the company includes seven men who are more than capable of handling those duties.
But she’s brought other new touches, including “The Muttcracker” program, now in its 10th year and something that has become an inspiration to performance organizations across the country.
“The Muttcracker continues to grow and is a special part of our tradition now,” she said. “We are this community’s organization, and partnering with Animal Care & Control has been a great way to share our commitment to the community while offering a voice to those who don’t have one.”
Gibbons-Brown walks the walk and is herself devoted to fostering and adopting dogs in need of a forever home. The program she developed in 2010 has helped her put many other pets into loving homes.
“Last year we helped home our 100th animal,” she said. “For many years we just had dogs, but we have since added cats. We don’t put them in the party scene like we do the dogs, but we do have them at the Animal Care & Control table in the lobby for people to meet and hopefully decide to adopt.”
The response to the dogs as they walk across the stage is always heartwarming, but if there’s anything that tops that, it’s the gasp of children at the end of Act I when the snow begins to fall on the audience in the Arts United Center just as it does on stage. The sense of wonder is palpable.
“It’s really beautiful,” Gibbons-Brown said. “It’s like looking at a beautiful picture or a globe with snow falling.”
Tradition and change
While there are many favorite aspects of The Nutcracker for those who regularly attend, Gibbons-Brown is sensitive to maintaining tradition while still keeping the show fresh. And keeping things fresh is as much about maintaining the many components of the production as it is about entertaining the audience.
“Of course we always have a change of dancers, and that brings something new to each performance,” she said. “We have two adorable Claras, and we’ll have three Sugar Plum Fairies. But we also need to refresh the costumes and can’t do all of them each year. But we will have new Sugar Plum costumes, new Snow costumes. Our tree is still very new, and we have a new Dragon from two years ago which requires 10 dancers to move it across the stage. The old Dragon took only five dancers. And we do change the choreography a bit. This year the battle scene will be handled by Natalya Vyashenko who is certified by American Ballet Theatre. Tracy Tritz is doing the party scene this year. Even people who see it all the time are going to see things they haven’t before.”
Fort Wayne Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has garnered national attention over the years, with the Wall Street Journal choosing it as one of the top five productions of the ballet in the United States. Last year Erie, Pa., asked the ballet to bring the production to their audiences. The ballet was a hit and will return this year.
“We are going to Erie again, and our last performance there will be December 22,” Gibbons-Brown said. “That’s going to make for an almost three-week run which includes all of our productions here, the school shows that we’re doing, and the week in Erie. It’s a lot, but it’s such a wonderful time of year. Spirits are high, and everyone wants something a little magical in their lives.”
Giving back to the community
Fort Wayne Ballet’s professional corps has grown dramatically in recent years, but it also continues to be a place where young dancers are trained through the Auer Academy, some of which continue on to careers outside of Fort Wayne. Dance is obviously the main component, but Gibbons-Brown is also aware of how important it is to teach other aspects of their art.
Just as Muttcracker has been a successful outreach aspect for the ballet, so has their stuffed animal drives which each year donate cuddly friends to the Fort Wayne Police Department to support children in traumatic situations. Their efforts alone have led to the collection of almost 4,000 stuffed animals.
“There’s always a need out there and ways an organization can serve our community,” she said. “When you study dance, you learn more than dance. You learn time management, you learn to be a team member, and you learn about servant leadership. I want our dancers to give back to our community because our community has given so much to us.”
One more additional way in which they engage the community is in their now-annual sensory-friendly performance which will take place this year on Tuesday, Dec. 10. In partnership with AWS Foundation, the performance is not open to the general public and allows for those on the spectrum, who may be uncomfortable with loud music, bright lights, and special effects.
Gibbons-Brown is emotional when she remembers last year’s performance and its aftermath.
“Last year, it was so successful and so inspiring, and at the end the dancers lined up around the theater to greet and acknowledge anyone who wished to interact with them. It was so lovely to watch and to see how much it meant not only to the people in the audience but to our dancers. They were there an extra hour that night, but no one minded. It was just so special to be part of that and to promote inclusiveness, kindness, and tolerance.”
The Nutcracker’s first three performances — the December 6 opening night and both the matinee and evening performance on December 7 — will feature the Fort Wayne Philharmonic conducted by Caleb Young. The popular Sugar Plum Parties, which Gibbons-Brown promised holds new surprises this year, take place after each of the four matinees.
Each year, Fort Wayne Ballet finds new ways to enchant the audience, both young and young at heart, with its staging of The Nutcracker.
“We are always happy and proud to be part of our community’s holiday celebration,” Gibbons-Brown said.
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