When Clara ventures into the Land of Sweets, she will encounter some new characters this year – or at least some characters that look at little different.
Fort Wayne Ballet will debut 10 new masks when its production of “The Nutcracker” opens Dec. 3. Mask maker Eric Bornstein created new full-head pieces for the production's eight mice, the Mouse King (or Queen, in this year's case) and the Nutcracker.
The Ballet intended to debut the masks for last year's production of “The Nutcracker,” but live performances were canceled because of the pandemic and a streaming performance was made available instead.
Artistic director Karen Gibbons-Brown is excited to finally share the masks with audiences.
“They're fabulous,” she says. “Each of the mice has a different personality.”
The masks are just part of what is new this year.
The audience will also see a professional dancer in the role of Clara, which allows for a little more advanced choreography than when young dancers take on the part.
Though the Ballet has had Clara go on pointe before (depending on the age and training level of the performer), having the roles of both Clara and the prince danced by professionals allows for partnering and lifts that younger performers can't do.
Gibbons-Brown says the Ballet will likely go back to using younger dancers for Clara at some point and there are still children performing in this year's show, however for safety reasons during the pandemic it just made sense to have adult dancers doing the intensive roles.
That sort of flexibility is key to making sure the performances can go on during the pandemic.
“Sometimes it's people's first entry point to the ballet,” Gibbons-Brown says of “Nutcracker.” “So we don't want to take the charm of the production away by any stretch of the imagination. But we did want to make sure that we can do it.”
Company dancer Abby Zinsser and Corps de Ballet member Sadie Jones will dance the role of Clara, something neither of them had done before coming to Fort Wayne.
Zinsser, who portrayed Clara for the first time in last year's streaming version of “The Nutcracker,” says it's a role that many girls in dance aspire to – in part because it's a lead and sometimes girls in the role get to dance with professional company members.
“This has been a fun experience to finally get to do it,” she says.
Zinsser grew up doing “Nutcracker,” and has danced in it every year since 2006. She enjoys revisiting the ballet each time.
“I think it's almost nostalgic,” she says. “It brings me back to how I was when I was younger and aspiring to be in a professional company like I am now.”
Like Zinsser, Jones grew up performing in “Nutcracker.” One of her favorite parts is the music – even if she just hears it playing in a store.
“I think the music is the most exciting part,” she says. “Once you hear the music you just get so excited for 'Nutcracker' season.”
Both say they enjoy when the “snow” falls on the audience, breaking the wall between what's happening on stage and the people watching.
“You can hear the audience reacting to the snow falling, and that's really magical,” Zinsser says.
Having Clara be a partnered role means the Ballet needed a new nightgown costume that was specially constructed so it won't shift during lifts and turns. There are also new costumes for the Marzipan Shepherdess and her flock, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen and Cavalier, as well as refurbishments on a number of other costumes.
Though there are new things to be seen in this year's production, there is plenty local “Nutcracker” fans will find familiar – including two longtime volunteers marking milestones.
This is Jim Schmidt's 25th year playing the magical Drosselmeyer, who supplies the titular nutcracker. Also marking 25 years is R.J. Benninghoff, who plays the grandfather in the opening party scene.
The annual “Muttcracker” is also back, bringing adoptable pets for audience members to meet in the lobby. The program expands this year to include both Fort Wayne Animal Care and Control and Humane Fort Wayne.
The Ballet is launching a new feature alongside “Nutcracker” performances: the Kris Kringle Village, which had a preview during Night of Lights.
Based on German Christmas markets, the village features local vendors selling items from decorated chalets in the Arts United Center plaza.
Hours are 4 to 10 p.m. Dec. 3, 4, 10 and 11, and noon to 5 p.m. Dec. 5 and 12. For a list of vendors, go to KrisKringleFW.com.
It's important that people have an experience when they come to see a show, Gibbons-Brown says.
“If you continue to grow the experience, it makes it even more special,” she says. “And I think Kris Kringle market will add to that ambiance.”
If you go
What: “The Nutcracker,” Fort Wayne Ballet
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11; 2 p.m. Dec. 4, 5, 11 and 12
Where: Arts United Center, 303 E. Main St.
Admission: Tickets for Dec. 3, 4 and 5 performances with Fort Wayne Philharmonic start at $45; tickets for remaining dates start at $35
Also: Free sensory-friendly performance, which is not open to the general public, will be at 6:30 p.m. Dec. 7; call 422-4226
By the numbers
2 to 3 pounds of fake snow falls to the stage during each performance
12 ounces of non-staining liquid used during each performance to make fake snow that falls on the audience