Smile Politely

The buoyant beauty of CU Ballet’s The Nutcracker

From the magical set and gorgeous costumes to the gravity-defying grand jetés powered in part by the live performance of Tchaikovsky’s score by the  Champaign-Urbana Symphony Orchestra, there is no better cure for the bah-humbugs than an evening spent at the Champaign-Urbana Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker.

It starts as you enter the Krannert lobby, filled with nutcrackers, holiday decorations, and the sheer radiance of the hundreds of spectacularly dressed young girls whose love for dance, and for this annual tradition give the sparkling lights a run for their money. 

I chose the Friday performance, and as you may know, corps members rotate roles, so while that will be reflected here, I am quite confident that under the careful direction of CU Ballet artistic director Deanna Doty and CSO guest conductor Matthew Sheppard, the entire four-day run was brilliant. 

Now in my second year of Nutcracker coverage, I can perhaps dive a bit deeper into the how and why of its powerful magic. As someone who traffics in words, I have learned that a big part of The Nutcracker’s power is its freedom from language. Its power is visceral. It requires us to quiet our too-busy minds and lean hard into our senses and our capacity for wonder.

At a time when so many of our experiences are digital, experiencing dance performed to live music is revfitalizing. We feel the timpani in our bones. This score was to inspire movement, not candy sales. We catch our breath as Eleanor Kraatz’s Clara takes her first leap. Live dance performance is deeply physical, aspirational, and ultimately ephemeral. If requires us to be fully present. 

Returning to The Nutcracker each year is in many ways like a family holiday reunion. We see how each of the young dancers have transformed and taken on the challenges of new roles. We welcome the newest members, from the sweetest baby rats to the tiniest cows under the Dairy Barn. Year after year we clap as the Dairy Barn emerges and the cows jump over the moon. We become part of the experience, the ritual, and the magic.

From the opening party scene to the Clara’s awakening from her dream, gifts in many forms are passed from hand to hand. Janie Lee, who danced the part of Clara in last year’s production, was brilliant as the party doll. With superb technique, elegance, and humor, she is a gift not only to the guests at the Stahlbaum’s party, but to us. A reminder of what it was like to live in wonder. 

The CU Ballet corps knows how to put the performance in dance performance. Gesture, expression, and movement combine to form the narrative language between characters and to the audience. Rob Rypka’s Drosselmeyer, the proud bearer of these mysterious gifts, hits the perfect note, his grand yet elegant gestures conjure up mystery and magic without appearing dark or dangerous. For me, perhaps the most surprising gift this time around was my deepening awareness of Clara and the gifts she gives and receives. She longs for her brother’s gift, the coveted Nutcracker, because she can dance with it, dream with it, create with it. Eleanor Kraatz brings both skill and youthful effervescence to Clara. 

It is after all Clara’s dream that provides the great gifts of all. She transports us into stunningly beautiful landscapes, where she finds her agency, ultimately saving the Nutcracker from the Rat King. Once in the land of the sugar plums, Oscar Lewis’ Nutcracker Prince shares the tale of Clara’s bravery. He is a strong partner to Kraatz’ Clara, a powerful, elegant dancer who knows when to let Clara shine. 

I found myself quite moved by the fact that Clara’s bravery is not rewarded with material objects (although there is that sparkly tiara), but with expressions of joy and gratitutde told in the language of dance. Wouldn’t it be a better world if we all of our gift giving followed suit. The lemonade sprite, candy ribbons, Arabian dancers, and the new Chinese Dragon and Butterfly, share the best of themselves and their cultures.

Elijah Ochs’ Cavalier and Lauren Frost’s Sugar Plum Fairy romantic pas de deux is beautifully buoyant. Ochs’ athletic yet elegant performance is literally breathtaking. Frost is our twenty-first century fantasty fairy made manifest. She is bold, she is strong, yet expressive, and she owns it all. A generous performer with a smile brighter than the Stahlbaum’s tree, Frost’s grand jetés are aspirational. She is dancing for us and with us, taking us with her as she breathes in and leaps. For me this is the true gift of The Nutcracker.

Deanna Doty clearly inspires her dancers both to deeply inhabit their characters and to brave new heights. As a ballet academy as a performing corps, CU Ballet radiates aspiration, inspiration, and a commitment to both excellence and joy. The Nutcracker is more heart-opening than the deepest yoga backbend. And that night, for me, and for many of those around me, it set the tone for the holiday season and the new year ahead. Work hard, but remain open to wonder. Dream big and imagine the unimaginable. And when you choose to give, give out of joy and from your very best self. 

CU Ballet’s The Nutcracker
Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Tryon Festival Theatre
500 S Goodwin Ave., Urbana
December 5th through 8th

Photos by Darrell Hoemann

Arts Editor

Related Articles