COLUMBUS, Ga. (WRBL) — Christmas is almost two months away, but preparations for The Columbus Ballet’s 27th production of “The Nutcracker” are well underway. According to Toya Willingham, artistic director of the ballet, the young dancers set to perform have been hard at work since August.

For Willingham, directing the iconic holiday ballet is about more than just dancing, it is about telling a story which audience members can actively engage with.

 “I felt like that was the original reason of the story because it was originally a book,” said Willingham about her unique approach to the production. She continued, “So, therefore I wanted to go back to that … use the theater and use the audience to make the story happen.”

This year is Willingham’s return to directing “The Nutcracker,” as well. She has previously worked with the material 10 to 15 times, she said, however took a couple years’ hiatus to raise her daughter who is now in high school.

According to dancers, working on the performance has been equal parts difficult and fun. Each week, they spend five to six hours “at least” practicing the perfect pirouettes and other choreography for the show, on top of being full-time high school students.

“I just feel like it’s nice to always have it [“The Nutcracker”],” said Maddie Vallinancourt, who will dance the role of Marzipan, amongst others. She added, “I just think it’s fun, but a challenge.”

As they prepare for opening night on Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m., the dancers become more excited for the show. According to dancer Alysa Hintay, a demi-soloist in Waltz of the Flowers and more, audiences should look forward to a few surprises during the show. For now, though, what those surprises are is being kept under wraps.

One thing that is not a secret right now is the Mother Ginger’s Tea event which will be hosted in anticipation of “The Nutcracker.” The activity, aimed toward parents and children, is the brainchild of the show’s Mother Ginger actor, local broadcast personality Wes Carroll.

For a fee of $40, a parent and child will receive snacks, a souvenir poster which will be signed by principal dancers, crafts opportunities and more. They will also get to interact with Mother Ginger and enjoy the “massive magic of Drosselmeyer [the fictional land in which “The Nutcracker” takes place],” according to Columbus Ballet Board President Jennifer Joyner. Extra children’s tickets cost $15 each.

 “It’s going to be a fun, intimate event prior to the Saturday opening show,” said Joyner. She added she is looking forward to connecting community members with characters from the stage for the tea which will take place at 12:30 p.m. on Dec. 16.

Tickets to this year’s performance of “The Nutcracker” are on sale now through the RiverCenter website. There will be two dates to choose from: Dec. 16 at 7:30 p.m. or Dec. 17 at 2:30 p.m.