Springfield's own Nutcracker

The holiday tradition for everyone

click to enlarge Clara (Olivia Pennell), along with the Nutcracker Prince, makes her way through the snow in the Springfield Ballet's holiday classic The Nutcracker. Right, Erica Wesselman as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Samuel Chester as The Cavalier perform a pas de deux to the romantic music of Tchaikovsky. - PHOTO BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY.
PHOTO BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY.
Clara (Olivia Pennell), along with the Nutcracker Prince, makes her way through the snow in the Springfield Ballet's holiday classic The Nutcracker. Right, Erica Wesselman as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Samuel Chester as The Cavalier perform a pas de deux to the romantic music of Tchaikovsky.

The Nutcracker Ballet is as Christmassy as you can get, right up there with fir trees, twinkling lights and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. All over the globe, ballet companies vie to create the perfect Nutcracker, and families everywhere line up for tickets. This weekend, on the grand stage at UIS-PAC, as it has every year since 1975 (except 2020), the Springfield Ballet presents its Nutcracker.

Much more than a ballet, it's the Super Bowl of holiday extravaganzas, with spectacle, displays of extraordinary physical skill and theatrical thrills. The wonderfully bizarre story packs a satisfying punch, the music is as familiar as White Christmas, and the costumes and sets are terrific.

Like many holiday traditions, there's a complex backstory. German Romantic writer E.T.A. Hoffman – the 19th century godfather of gothic horror – cooked up a tale of a haunted nutcracker and Alexandre Dumas (of The Three Musketeers fame) made it family-friendly. Add an infectious score by Tchaikovsky, the Russian wizard of emotion, and staging by Marius Petipa, the Frenchman who practically invented ballet as we know it, and Nutcracker was born a holiday staple, sugar plums and all.

Young Clara creeps downstairs in the mysterious hours of Christmas Eve to play with her favorite gift, a classic wooden nutcracker. But a magician is waiting to whisk her and her beloved Nutcracker (now a handsome prince, of course) off to save the world from evil. After subduing the villainous Mouse King, Clara and her Nutcracker Prince fly through the Land of Snow to the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy serves up a kind of dance-off: a dazzling display of dances from around the world. Back at home, Clara is convinced it must all have been a dream – or was it?

As is happening to many cultural products, those global dances are receiving increased scrutiny this year, since they have been traditionally presented in a Eurocentric, stereotypical way. That old approach may change for next year.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY.
PHOTO BY DONNA LOUNSBERRY.

But Nutcracker captures what we long for during this season: the spectacular, the exotic made familiar and the magical. It is the stuff of childhood dreams and the very adult longings for redemption and the triumph of good over evil. It's also a "Christmas" tradition that is theology-free so, regardless of religious persuasion or lack thereof, Nutcracker captures the spirit of the season.

More than just a show, this Nutcracker really is a community holiday event. While experienced dancers handle the toughest roles, the heart of Nutcracker is the youth and children: dozens and dozens of them of all ages. Ballet requires years of training, and few high school athletes can match these dancers for dedication. Many start training at an age long before most kids can field a grounder.

One dancer, Caroline Dahlquist, who first appeared in Nutcracker at age 8, is typical. "Dance is a huge part of who I am," she told us. "It's all about passion, discipline and commitment."

Lauren Pumphrey, now at UIS, made her debut at six, but has memories of Nutcracker as a tiny child. "I remember the snow scene. I thought it was actually snowing in the theater. My whole family loves the show!"

Chances are, if you give The Nutcracker a try, you'll love it, too.

There have been some unexpected changes in leadership at Springfield Ballet recently, but Nutcracker goes on as planned, and the company has a history of excellence. Their Rock Ballet is a high-energy tradition each fall. The company's pre-Covid ballet, Romeo+Juliet – a collaboration with local theater artists under former Artistic Director Julie Ratz – was phenomenal, the finest theatrical event of any kind I've experienced since my return to Springfield a few years ago. So, the company is fully capable of great things.

But go see for yourself. Give yourself and your family a gift. Whether for the first time or the 21st, the Springfield Ballet Company's Nutcracker belongs at the top of your personal holiday list.

Performances at UIS-PAC

Performances Saturday, Dec. 11, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 12, 2 p.m. General admission $35.

Springfieldballetco.org.

A "sensory-friendly" performance Friday, Dec. 10, at 6 p.m. welcomes families who have members of any age who need additional support. It's a shorter version, providing ASL and audio description, house lights at 50%, lower sound levels, and other accommodations for those with special needs. Admission and parking are free for this performance.

Social distancing limits tickets for this popular event. Face masks required. Proof of full vaccination (two weeks from final dose) or proof of negative Covid test (within 48 hours) required. Those 18 and older need photo ID. Parking is $5 – cash only.

Dennis Thread is a freelance writer, director and producer experienced in theater, dance, opera, immersive experiences, public ritual, film, TV and institutional and corporate communications. dthread@creativethread.com