Sixteen years since its premiere performance and nine iterations in, Steps Dance School’s biennial rendition of “The Nutcracker” is, above all, aiming to do one thing: surprise audiences.

Following a trend to bring a more personal touch to the oft traditional ballet, the Garden City show is being transformed this year, said Steps owner Sabrina Rishel, to pay homage to the city it will be performed in. Throughout this weekend’s four performances, attendees will watch the familiar story play out in 1910 Garden City, with several scenes set in the heyday of the Windsor Hotel, downtown and at the first Finney County Fair.

Jessica Pammenter, 16, who plays the lead, Clara, in one of the production’s two casts, said the experience will be a new one.

“You’ve never seen it like this before,” she said.

The changes come with an all-new set built from scratch, including a face for the stage resembling the Windsor, said set designer Zach Scheiman, and costumes, such as those in the opening party scene, redone to match the time period.

Parent and acting coach Ginny Duncan also helped revamp the story, creating a new throughline for some of the ballet’s vignettes and sometimes aligning with snippets of Finney County history. Clara slides down the banister to reference stories of the Windsor’s daughter doing the same on Christmas morning and the Mother Ginger dance in Act II is set at the Finney County fair, Rishel said.

"The Nutcracker" is done all over everywhere throughout the holiday season, Duncan said. The change was effective two-fold: It let the cast and crew mix things up and will make it special for those who watch it, she said.

“When you redo ‘The Nutcracker’ over and over again, you get, like, Nutcracker fatigue...” Duncan said. “We wanted it to be a little fresher. People are like ‘Oh, I went to the last one.’ Well, no. This is going to be a little different.”

Changes go beyond the Garden City tie-in. Scheiman said the production has “a little bit of everything,” from a cannon that blasts real fire to a snow scene with falling flakes and a new backdrop. And there’s a stronger focus on performances this year, too, thanks to a weekly acting class, taught by Duncan, to help the dancers find and connect to their characters, Rishel said.

The result is a refreshed production featuring over 180 dancers ages 3 to 18, save a stray adult cast member, all hailing from Garden City, Holcomb, Lakin, Ulysses, Scott City, Dodge City and Liberal, Rishel said — the entirety of Steps’ dancers, all included. They’ve been rehearsing since the summer.

When Steps first produced "The Nutcracker" in the studio’s first few months in 2002, it was Rishel’s sister’s Buff project at Garden City High School. It was simple, Rishel said, and childlike, with maybe 25 dancers. In the show’s third or fourth rendition, dancer Chloe Hanigan, 18, said performers were changing costumes constantly, dancing back to back to back.

With more sponsors and funding, a much larger pool of dancers and the desire to break through a more traditional mold, Rishel said the show has grown considerably over each performance, which are staged every other year.

And soon, some established members of that growing legacy will perform their last "Nutcracker" with the studio. Eight high school-aged dancers that have been performing in the production over 13, 14, 15 years will take their last bow with Steps’ Nutcracker Sunday afternoon.

As the cast ran through dress rehearsal Thursday, the night before the last show, waist-high dancers in bright red pants and pink and white tutus hopped on stage or chattered in the audience when waiting for their scenes. A long line of tiny, pre-kinder mice held hands as a parent guided them backstage. A decade plus ago, the veteran dancers were in the same shoes. Well, slippers.

The show had grown in front of them, taught them to be actors, as well as dancers, and tied them to friends with their same passion and work ethic through hours upon hours of practice, they said. Instead of kids with maybe one small dance part, they now lived on the stage throughout the show.

“We see each other so much...” said Karly Larson, 16, who will perform the show with the studio for the last time this weekend. “It’s just — it’s weird. In two years we’re not going to be doing this again.”

Steps’ "The Nutcracker" will hold performances at 6 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday, all at Clifford Hope Auditorium at Horace Good Middle School. Tickets can be purchased online and are $20 for the center section and $10 for adults and $6 for children in all other sections.


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