CU Ballet Nutcracker4

Ava Teague portrays Clara during a rehearsal for ‘The Nutcracker’ on Tuesday Dec. 3, 2019, in the Tryon Festival Theatre at Krannert Center for the Performing Arts in Urbana.

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Last week the Champaign-Urbana Ballet came back to Krannert with its annual run of Peter Tchaikovsky’s perennial ballet favorite, “The Nutcracker,” based on stories by the German author E.T. A. Hoffmann. I attended the fifth of six performances, at 2 p.m. on Dec. 8. The Tryon Festival Theatre was filled with young children, loyal parents and balletomanes of all ages. Almost as exciting as the excellent ballet performances was the “land-office” trade in nutcrackers at intermission time, and, if possible, the line for cupcakes was even longer than for the emblematic nutcrackers.

These fine performances involved a legion of people — from little mice, rats, soldiers and imps escaping from a gigantic mother, and these on-stage performers were supported by moms and dads driving caravans of vans. Those in the C-U Ballet who train these dancers and organize these productions are outstanding in showing what this community can do when we all pull together.

Beginning with the peaks of this production, let me say that I was most dazzled by the two grand climaxes of Act I. The first was the emergence of the Nutcracker, who defeated the Rat Queen, amid the splendors of Tchaikovsky’s music. Alexander Hynes was a stalwart, and an agile Nutcracker, and Isaac Lee played a suitably nightmarish Rat Queen. Brett Feddersen, a veteran of these productions, gave a commanding portrayal of toymaker/magician Drosselmeyer.

The second splendid moment was the change to a towering Christmas tree as we shift from the cozy Stahlbaum locale to the “Land of the Snow” scene.

Ava Teague danced a charming and sympathetic Clara, and James Smith was a veritable “loose cannon ball” as her naughty brother Fritz. Isaac Lee, as Cavalier (fresh from his demise as Rat Queen), loyally partnered Farah Willenbrach’s brilliant dancing as Sugar Plum Fairy, and Lee himself earned cheers for his twirls and leaps.

The solo and group dancing numbers were on a high level, a credit to the training of Deanna Doty and her fellow teachers at the C-U Ballet. High praise should go to Lorenzo Pantano and Emma Rypka as Spanish Dancers, Lauren Frost as Chinese Butterfly, Leo Lewis and stalwart followers in the Chinese Dragon, Erica Johnston as the Arabian Princess and Elijah Ochs as the Arabian Prince, Beatrice Ebel, Hanna Laible-Seif and Kiera McCoy as Russian dancers, Amalia Bollera and Kevin Burnside in the Flower Pas de Deux, and Ilana Cohen and Grace Williams-Kim as Rose Buds.

Every year there are new alterations in these productions. I confess that I do not have a perfect memory of past performances to alert me as to what is new. Was there a new stage design for the “Land of Sweets”? It certainly drew gasps of delight from the audience. In one segment, Clara held up a staff with a moon shape at the end of it, and the tiny tots “leaped over the moon,” to general acclaim.

The playing of the Champaign-Urbana Symphony, ably led by Matthew Sheppard, guest conductor, brought out the beauties of Tchaikovsky’s score. There is nothing like the sound of real flutes and horns, and the playing of all the other fine members of the C-U Symphony was a joy to hear. What is precious in this ballet is its ability to open or reopen the portal to all that wondrous awe of childhood, lost all too quickly with the passing years.

John Frayne hosts “Classics of the Phonograph” on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. Reach him at frayne@illinois.edu.