The heaviest roles in the Champaign-Urbana Ballet Academy’s Nutcracker performances often falls on the lightest shoulders.
Tiny ballerinas are dancing around stage with a 4-foot stick attached to a 7-pound horsehead.
It’s a weighty issue.
That was in the past.
When the annual production is revived on Dec. 1, the dancers will hold new props thanks to Mahomet’s John Odum and a group of fifth-grade students at Champaign’s Carrie Busey Elementary School.
“I had a pretty clear vision from the beginning what we were trying to achieve,” Odum said.
When the project was concluded, the new horseheads had been reduced in weight by half.
Seven Carrie Busey students were part of an after-school group that undertook the work.
“The kids were very eager every day to know what the next step was,” Odum said. “They were involved in a process that is pretty sophisticated sculpture technique.”
They learned patience.
“We wrecked one of them,” Odum said. “The first attempt looked great, but when we created the plaster mold, it wasn’t thick enough and broke.
“The kids were a little disappointed, but it was a good lesson. Part of the creative process is to make mistakes and learn from it.”
An art teacher at Carrie Busey, Odum called the undertaking “a pretty elaborate process.”
A sculpture head was built out of clay, then a plaster mold was taken before expanding foam was poured into the mold.
Odum was used to the work, but the students were novices.
“I’ve had many sculpture classes (in college) where I’ve gone through the same processes,” Odum said, “but it’s not something typically done in elementary school.
“I’d never done these until I was in college.”
Odum is well aware, he said, of the challenges of “creating something that is artistic and nice to look at, but also functional.”
He was asked a year ago by artistic director Deanna Doty to come up with a re-design, and started work on it about four months ago.
Odum estimated that the students’ collective “volunteer hours were close to 40.”
In the final stages, Carrie Busey principal Jeff Scott joined in.
“He came in and got his hands involved,” Odum said. “It was one of those days where three adults and seven kids were working really quickly.
“Because the plaster sets up very quickly, it reaches a certain consistency where it’s best to apply it. You have to work fast to create the mold. It sets up within 20 to 30 minutes.”
Many of the students will receive a chance to see the results of their labor first-hand.
“Most are going to see The Nutcracker and are thrilled to know something they had a hand in is part of the performance,” Odum said, “especially since the C-U Ballet is a professional organization.”
The student helpers were Ronald Baker, Isabella Buldak, Parker Clifton, Killian Jones, Sammy Kang, Luke Swanson and Anna Sweet.
The previous horseheads were made from paper mache and foam. Odum — who was on the founding company that started The Nutcracker 20 years ago — has more of an interest than from the artistic standpoint.
His sixth-grade daughter, Rosy, has danced in the C-U Ballet the last four years.
The horseheads were finished and delivered last week, on Monday, Nov. 13.
“I get recruited to do lots of creative things like this,” John Odum said, “but this was the first time I was able to design something for the C-U Ballet.”