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Fort Wayne Ballet Brings The Nutcracker Back to the Arts United Center

In the spirit of full disclosure, I worked for Fort Wayne Ballet for more than two years – but three Nutcrackers. That performance almost defines the organization and has sealed its place in our community’s holiday celebration for more than six decades. Having witnessed many performances and rehearsals, I can attest to the beauty, grace, and delight of each production, but one moment truly stands out – and I wasn’t even in view of the Arts United Center stage when it happened.

At one performance, I watched from the lobby on the closed-circuit television and headed toward the doors which would open upon intermission. In the minutes leading up to the end of Act I, I heard the music swelling and knew what was about to happen: It was going to start snowing in the theatre. I’d seen it before, I knew the moment well, there were no surprises. But in that moment, I first heard the sound of snow followed immediately by the gasps of children and adults alike, reacting to the miracle that greeted them. It was a magical moment and one I will never forget.

The Nutcracker has been bringing that magic to families for many years, and it never gets old. New audiences delight in that first experience while seasoned audiences know well how enchanted the experience will be. While COVID continues to bring changes this year (after virtual performances replaced those in the theatre last year), some of the changes will likely add to the festive atmosphere.

“We won’t have Sugar Plum Parties this year again, but we have the Kris Kringle Market outside on the plaza of Arts United Center,” said Karen Gibbons-Brown, artistic director of Fort Wayne Ballet. “That will be open during all of our performances, and you don’t have to attend the performance to visit the market. It’ll be open to anyone who is downtown.”

While many features of the performances underscore the beloved traditions expected of The Nutcracker, Fort Wayne Ballet has their own special traditions that have become as cherished as the falling of snow at the end of Act I. The Muttcracker program, begun in 2010, has become a staple of the performances as well as the outreach of the ballet, which has featured pups in the party scene and available for adoption in the lobby.

“We’re expanding our animal involvement this year to include more adoptable dogs than in the past,” said Gibbons-Brown. “We’re working with Humane Fort Wayne as well as Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control. It allows for more animals to find forever homes, and it helped solve a slight problem with some of the younger dancers. We couldn’t audition community members this year so we’re using the dogs in place of the smaller children as the sheep.”

While there are still community members involved – including Jim Schmidt as Herr Drosselmeyer and R.J. Benninghoff as the grandfather, both in their 25th year – a need to maintain the ballet’s “pod” required more limited involvement. Even some of the characters typically portrayed by younger dancers are now being played by smaller dancers from the Ballet’s company.

“People have been great in helping us to navigate some of these things,” Gibbons-Brown said. “We aren’t distancing in the theatre, but we’re moving the Fort Wayne Children’s Choir to the back of the theatre instead of along side the stage. Just making it a little safer for everyone. And the cast is still large – 95 children and 160 total.”

Another new element will be the masks brought in for the mice and other characters in the battle scene. Thanks to a tip from Fort Wayne Youtheatre executive director Todd Espeland, Fort Wayne Ballet hired mask artist Eric Borenstein from New York City to help them update and improve the look of the production. Ready for last year’s production, they were more than ready to finally be used this year. And there will once again be a sensory-friendly performance for audiences in need of a someone different performance atmosphere. There are a few changes here and there, but one of the best changes is in the breadth of talent Fort Wayne Ballet brings to their company and to our city.

“We have five dancers from outside the country – three from Japan, one from Mexico, an done from Taiwan,” Gibbons-Brown said. “And we now have eight men on contact along with many dancers who grew up with Fort Wayne Ballet.”

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