URBANA — A bigger cast, more children dancing and a return to a Russian tradition make this year's "The Nutcracker" a special one for the Champaign Urbana Ballet.
The show, which opens Nov. 30 in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, has a cast of 120. It also features new costumes and a return to the elaborate Russian folk dancing sequence of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's holiday masterpiece.
In the story, based both on "The Tales of Hoffmann" and an Alexandre Dumas adaption, Clara and her Nutcracker Prince are led through an enchanted dream by Clara's godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer.
Mice and soldiers fight as they dance in snow — and among holiday candy.
The 40-piece Sinfonia da Camera handles the familiar melodies.
First performed in 1892, Tchaikovsky's score was not considered a great hit until he shortened it to the familiar "Nutcracker Suite."
It's now performed much more often than in the composer's day, and the CU Ballet has offered slightly different versions in the last decade.
In 1999, the troupe presented scenes from "The Nutcracker." It began to present the full-length version in 2001, according to CU Ballet board member Alison Fong Weingartner.
"The Nutcracker" features company dancers from CU Ballet along with scores of children from the community.
CU Ballet producer Tracy McCabe said last year the cast was about 100, but this year it's closer to 120.
"We have done a version of the Russian variation every year, except for last year — a rare exception — and because the lead Russian dancer was unable to perform," McCabe said.
He said the company is unique for towns the size of Champaign-Urbana.
"Peoria, Bloomington and Springfield companies have either seen no growth or some decline," McCabe said. "It's a sad truth. It's not that they're not doing great work, but it takes the commitment of a community to support and grow the classical arts.
"Our company has continued to grow, even in the presence of today's economic reality."
Artistic director Deanna Doty was determined to bring back the Russian Variation in a very big way, McCabe said.
So the production features four Cossacks (danced by veterans Jon Ebel, Scott Keeble, David O'Brien and Christopher Ochs) in addition to a main couple composed of seasoned company dancers (on alternate performances, Corbin Phillips with Emily Beverly and Nick Hittle with Peyton Herbert).
Bringing back the Russian Variation is a small but important testimonial to the company's putting together the best of Tchaikovsky, McCabe said.
"The Cossack dance is the shortest variation in Act II," McCabe said, "but the music is fast-paced, the dancers are jumping and turning quickly, and the shouts of the Cossacks dressed in brilliant royal blue with gold trim and fur make it one of the most fun for audiences and for the dancers."
CU Ballet touts the company dancers, working together as a corps de ballet, leaping or pirouetting.
McCabe said the show overall is a fast-paced, magical ballet that keeps the audience riveted from the moment the curtain rises until the dancers bow at the end.
"There's a lot of heart in what we do, and the audience is right there with us in the moment," he said.
Doty noted a bunch of new costumes in a party scene and also "The Waltz of the Flowers."
"We have new dancers coming in, and older dancers returning, a little more experienced," she said. "They bring some maturity to the cast. We've got the dancers."
If you go
What: Champaign Urbana Ballet and Sinfonia da Camera present Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker"
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 30; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1; 2 p.m. Dec. 2; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 8; 2 p.m. Dec. 9
Where: Tryon Festival Theatre, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $38 for adults; $26 for students; $19 for youths 12 and under
More info: Tracy McCabe, Champaign Urbana Ballet, 333-4093 or 847-721-6206; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.cuballet.com