One of Dayton’s most beloved holiday traditions returns this weekend

Former Dayton Ballet dancers reminisce

It’s one of Dayton’s most cherished holiday traditions.

The Dayton Ballet presents the classic story of The Nutcracker every winter, with a cast that includes young dancers from throughout the Dayton area, with music by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra.

This year’s Nutcracker will run from Dec. 14-23 at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, with tickets starting at $18.

The current production, an annual outing for hundreds of Miami Valley families, features costumes by Lowell Mathwich and sets by designer Ray Zupp, the show features the entire Dayton Ballet company as well as 100 area children and members of Dayton Ballet II.

The story of little Clara and her magical adventures in the Land of Sweets will be accompanied by the full Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of Neal Gittleman.

What makes this event so special? The costumes are phenomenal, the choreography is beautiful, the little kids are adorable and the holiday spirit is strong at this event.

>> 7 of our favorite Dayton holiday traditions


Karen RussoBurke is still dreaming up imaginative choreography, but these days it’s not for her brothers and cousins but for Miami Valley audiences. Since 2011, Burke has been artistic director of the Dayton Ballet.

Q. What makes “The Nutcracker” so special? 

A. It’s such a classic in the ballet world. For many families, it’s more of a tradition than a ballet. They say: “We’re going to ‘The Nutcracker,’” not “We’re going to the ballet.” The music has become commonplace; the ballet has been on TV with (Mikhail) Baryshnikov. Families get together, get dressed up. Parents and grandparents may have seen it — or even been it it — when they were children.

Q. What are your own earliest memories of “The Nutcracker?” 

A. I think one of my earliest memories is the first year I was in “The Nutcracker.” I was a mouse and our artistic director always sat in the downstairs right wing. She would have us all sit by her feet and watch the Snow Queen. I remember the snow was falling on stage and I was watching a professional dancer. It was almost better than dancing. I was probably about five years old.

Over the years I was a soldier, a party child, a Chinese dancer, a Spanish dancer, a snowflake, a flower and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Q. How do you keep “The Nutcracker” fresh? Do you get tired of doing it? 

A. Dancers call it “the ballet you love to hate.” The way I grew up, “The Nutcracker” was done in 10-year cycles so if you were first introduced to it at age seven or eight, you would be graduating high school before the next cycle.

In Dayton, we did a new “Nutcracker” in 2003 and then in 2013 and we will do the next one in 2023. We have completely new costumes and sets for each new cycle and I change the choreography a little each time. We are always changing dancers to give them more challenges and highlight their strengths. That helps keep it fresh. Dancers who have been in the company for years will know every role.

It also stays fresh for me because I love to see the new children who come and audition. I love to see them the first time in the studio as they watch the professional dancers. We always have many new students, half of the children are new to our “Nutcracker” and that’s always exciting. This year we have 110 children in the ballet, plus our Dayton Ballet II seniors and our professional company. We’ll do 10 performances, plus we’ve added a sensory-friendly performance.



Before the performances and during intermissions, the Schuster Center Wintergarden features the Dayton Ballet Boutique, Rike’s window boxes and Graeter’s Sweet Shoppe. Yes, there’s ice cream. Kids can shop at the Tike’s Shoppe, and they can meet Santa from 2-5 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays .


After each performance, ticket holders are invited free of charge to “Behind the Ballet,” a Q&A with artistic director Karen Russo Burke and dancers.


The Dayton Ballet Barre will host a Sugar Plum Tea before the matinee on Sunday, Dec. 16 at The Dayton Woman’s Club, 225 N. Ludlow St. in downtown Dayton. Tickets are $20 for adults and children and are available through Ticket Center Stage at (888) 228-3630.


Sensory-Friendly Afternoon at The Nutcracker at 2 p.m. on Dec. 20 is designed especially for children and adults with autism spectrum disorder, sensory sensitivities or other special needs. Tickets are $25 at Ticket Center Stage (888) 228-3630 or online at


• “Muttcracker,” designed to help find a loving home for dogs that need to be rescued, will be held during intermission and after the show at matinee performances Dec. 15 and 16, 22 and 23. This year, Liberty Acres United Rescue & Animal Sanctuary is the featured organization.


If you plan to make this tradition part of your holiday season ...


What: Dayton Ballet's "The Nutcracker" accompanied by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra

When: Dec. 14-23 for 10 performances

Where: Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center, 1 W. Second St., Dayton

Tickets: $18 and up, available at Ticket Center Stage (888) 228-3630 or online at Senior, teacher and military discounts are available at the box office.

>> Why ‘The Nutcracker’ is a dancer’s rite of passage?

>> The breathtaking Tree of Light and 7 more reasons to visit Carillon Park this holiday season

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