When it comes to a classic like "The Nutcracker," much of its popularity is in sticking with what's traditional, giving audiences a show they know they will enjoy. But as time goes on, some things just have to change. 

When the Civic Dance Center returns with the ballet production this weekend for its 41st year, it will have a new, three-dimensional growing tree, replacing the one that has served it for four decades. It's the result of two years of hard work and ingenuity from the production's technical crew.

"It's very exciting!" said Cindy Trueblood, who co-owns the dance studio with husband Kevin. "These guys worked hard — they designed it and decorated it. You think of them doing tech, but this was such a good reminder that they're artists too."

The tree is an important part of the "Nutcracker" story, as it grows on stage right before the audience's eyes. The first tree, a flat, two-dimensional painting, originally came from the Fresno Ballet, so Trueblood doesn't know how old it actually is.

"They've been fighting with that tree for years," Trueblood said of the tech crew. "Every year it has so many repairs. They say the only thing keeping it together is paint."

The new tree, which reaches a height of 26 feet, is "an engineering marvel," Trueblood said. Created by Matt Bernon, Joel McCullah, Ryan McCullah, Manny Gomez and Omar Morabito, the prop was the result of lots of trial and error and seeing what other productions were doing.

"It was their gift to the community and dancers," Trueblood said of the crew's work and donated time.

There will also be some new costumes on the stage this year, Trueblood said, adding that the costume department could sympathize with the tech crew, as they too have been working with decades-old items. 

"Our sewing ladies are constantly repairing," she said. "To have something new that they know is going to last, they relate to the tech guys."

Auditions and rehearsals for this year's production started in August. Because the studio has regular classes throughout the week, the dancers (all 130 of them, ranging in age from about 5 to 60-plus) have been rehearsing on the weekends since the summer. 

"These dancers are extremely dedicated to their craft," Trueblood said. "It's a great commitment for not just the dancers but the dancers' families."

Now 41 years on, the production is pretty dialed in but that doesn't mean it's always easy.

"There are parts of it that are a well-oiled machine, but every year there's a new challenge," she said. "Not everyone knows the choreography because there are new children coming into roles. The choreographers are creative people and don't always want to do the same thing."

In recent years, the production has had to deal with a new challenge: For most of its run, it has had live music from the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra, but this will now be the third year without it. Trueblood said there is no bad blood with the orchestra, just that having them is cost-prohibitive, so the studio has had to use recorded music.

"We carry on as best we can," she said. "It's still a great production. What you see on stage is as it ever was."

When the Truebloods started the annual "Nutcracker" performance, they couldn't have known it would become a tradition for the dancers and audience alike. Generations of dancers have performed in it, and many local families kick off their holiday season every year by taking in the show.

If ever it has seemed like one more year of "The Nutcracker" might be more trouble than it's worth, Trueblood said, all it takes to keep going is remembering the dancers who look forward to it every year.

It's become a tradition "basically because of the dancers' love of performing it," she said. "They enjoy being devoted to something and involved, knowing the community is going to come and enjoy this holiday tradition."

Trueblood said the dancers have a lot of respect for "The Nutcracker" and take it seriously, calling their dedication "inspiring." What that means for the audience is an enjoyable and impressive performance put on by people in their community.

"It's a great way to start the Christmas season," Trueblood said. "If they've never seen it before, I think they'll be surprised by how professional the dancers are." 

Kelly Ardis can be reached at 661-395-7660. Follow her on Twitter at @TBCKellyArdis.

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