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'Nutcracker' back for live audiences this weekend in Missoula

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Artistic director Michele Antonioli, right, leads the cast of Garden City Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker" as they block out their bows on Thursday at the University of Montana.

A professional Sugar Plum Fairy, an ensemble of local 7-year-old gingersnaps and a total cast of more than 100 people will dance on stage again to Tchaikovsky’s timeless music this year.

The Garden City Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” a holiday tradition for 37 years, has returned to the Dennison Theatre at the University of Montana for sold-out weekend performances.

It’s an annual rite like many others that “make you feel grounded, they give you memories of times past, they can feel safe and good and joyful,” said Michele Antonioli, the artistic director. “And I think that ‘The Nutcracker’ for many people is one of those things.”

Antonioli, a retired dance professor from the University of Montana, is on her second yearslong stint with the production, with only a handful of times that she hasn’t participated since 1999.

She’s heard from people whose parents took them to see a production when they were kids, and they’ve seen it every year since, bringing their own children.

The energy this year is “magic,” she said. “The kids are riding on an extraordinary high.”

The eagerness to see the show again is easily measured: Tickets for this weekend’s performances are all spoken for, but the nonprofit company is going to record and edit a version for streaming, which will be available for on-demand viewing through ShowTix4U by Christmas. (Head to for information, which will be under the “ticket” menu tab.)

A return to the stage

Last year, the ballet company had each “small unit” of the show rehearse separately with masks and social distancing. Then they performed in those smaller units with costumes, sets and lights for video, that was assembled into a full performance to watch at home. (Parents could view rehearsals from home, too.)

This year, they’re back on stage as in normal times with full costumes, sets and lights. The performers won’t have masks on during the live shows, but they did during rehearsals.

“I’ve known these kids for so many years, and I haven’t seen their faces for probably two years,” Antonioli said. It’s led to a “revelation of who they’ve become,” she said.

This year includes 15 7-year-olds, enough to bring back Mother Ginger and her Gingersnaps. “We have some delightful little mice who are in that age range” too, she said.

The kids are drawn from the city’s dance studios, and they accept whoever has entered ballet training the September of that production year.

Years later, many will look back on it as “the thing they remember most about growing up in Missoula and dancing — they get hooked into it.”

Guest artists include Megan Becker of Avant Chamber Ballet in Texas, in the key role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Shea Johnson is Cavalier, coming from the Indianapolis Ballet of Indiana. Longtime “Nutcracker” fans will be pleased to note that Missoula’s own Jeff Medley is back as Herr Drosselmeyer.

“We are all extraordinarily thankful that we have an audience to dance for,” Antonioli said. “And these kids need it. And we're just, I just want to say to all of the people that have bought a ticket: thank you. We need you.”

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Related to this story

MCT Inc., home of Missoula Children’s Theatre and Missoula Community Theatre, together with Craig and Ellen Langel, are challenging Montanans to raise $50,000 during their holiday fundraising drive.

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