"It was a scheduling thing that was out of our control," company artistic director Linda Walker says. "Next year, we'll be back at the usual time."
Tucson Regional dances its charming Old Pueblo version of the Germanic Christmas tale--complete with dancing coyotes and a Prickly Pear Fairy--at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, but this year, the place is otherwise engaged all three December weekends before Christmas.
The ballet timetable may be early, but it's better than last year, when the two leading Nutcracker productions went toe-to-toe the same weekend. This year, Ballet Tucson, the city's only professional ballet company, has its usual mid-December slot all to itself, for a traditional, velvet-swathed Nut at Centennial Hall. So true fans can hit both.
"In our wonderful city, we have so many choices," Walker enthuses.
Both her troupe and Ballet Tucson go to the expense of hiring professional musicians to play the lush Tchaikovsky score live, adding immeasurably to the ballet's pleasures. Cal Kellogg, who conducts for Arizona Opera, leads the Ballet Tucson Orchestra, composed largely of Phoenix musicians. The Tucson Symphony Orchestra--using as many musicians as will fit into the small pit beneath the Music Hall stage--plays for Tucson Regional. Robert Bernhardt, formerly of the TSO, conducts.
Both troupes also have live children's choirs singing the "ah-ah's" in the Snow Scene. Tucson Regional uses its own wee dancers-turned-singers in its children's choir, and Ballet Tucson replaces the Tucson Boys Chorus of Christmases past with the Heritage Choirs. The change is "just to keep things fresh," Ballet Tucson's Mary Beth Cabana says.
Taped music is standard for the smaller troupes, organized around local dance studios, which stage less-elaborate Nutcrackers throughout the month.
If you want to hazard the holiday drive up Interstate 10, you can hear the Phoenix Symphony playing for Ballet Arizona's lovely version. The Phoenix Nut has so many performances, it goes clear past Christmas. (A complete Nutcracker schedule follows.)
Each year, Tucson's Nutcracker competition pushes the troupes to do a little more, re-choreographing a scene here, revamping a costume there. Walker's new co-artistic director, Deborah Kenner, tinkered with the choreography, making the Gambler and Hurdy Gurdy "really cute" and fine-tuning the Snow Scene, set on Mount Lemmon. Walker also sprang for a big new backdrop for the Act I party scene. Depicting an 1880s hacienda outside Tucson, it has a beamed ceiling, she says, and accommodates last year's new magical Christmas tree.
The early Thanksgiving start to the season also affected Walker's choice of guest stars. Most of the dancers are kids and teens from her Academy of Ballet, but normally, she taps out-of-town pros to dance the Caballero, the Southwest version of the Cavalier, and the Prickly Pear Fairy, counterpart to Sugar Plum. But with the concerts sandwiched around Thanksgiving (a schoolchildren's concert was Tuesday), Walker had to stick with locals. She says the UA School of Dance delivered the dancers she needed.
Michael Soden, a "gorgeous, excellent dancer," danced professionally with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Cincinnati Ballet before coming to Tucson to get his college degree. He'll partner with the UA's Kelsey Davis, an "exquisite" dancer, who has trained at Boston Ballet and Houston Ballet.
Four other UA dancers dance featured roles. Hseth Burch, a University High grad and a double-major in dance and chemical engineering, once again takes on the scene-stealing Tumbleweed, elsewhere known as the Russian dancer.
Two young girls, Holly Bentkowski and Lauren Flower, alternate as Maria--the Hispanicized Clara, the little girl who dreams of a prince. A former Maria, Paetia Mechler, now 16, is the Native American Queen.
Cabana, artistic director of Ballet Tucson, prides herself on using the company's 20 pro dancers in the annual Christmas extravaganza, rounded out by a Hollywood-size cast of 120 kids and teens from the Ballet Arts studio. Beautifully trained in the classical tradition, the kids take on the traditional mice and sheep and candies, while the pros dance the leads.
Normally, the married stars, Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup, own the Sugar Plum-Cavalier pas de deux, but "we have a second principal couple this year, Stuart Lauer and Meredith Dulaney," Cabana says. "We've been grooming Meredith and Stuart the last couple of years, and we're excited for them to debut in the grand pas de deux." They'll alternate with Johnson and Precup.
A real-life sister and brother--Jahna and Elias Frantziskonis--play the ballet's dueling sibs, Clara and Fritz, but they alternate the parts with others and won't actually be in the same shows. Two of the four pink-dressed Claras return from last year--Frantziskonis and Lydia Pettit. Two more, Danielle James and Zoe Tsurusaki, are new. The second naughty Fritz is Cole Braxton.
Executive director Jeffrey Graham Hughes re-choreographed the sensuous Arabian number, which is also getting retooled costumes. And the in-house seamstresses have whipped up new outfits in gold and ivory for Sugar Plum and the Cavalier. "The gold and ivory stand out from the visual color of Act II," Cabana says. "I like it." Just like her Nutcracker, the colors are "very classic."
For Ballet Tucson's Eighth Annual Sugar Plum Tea, the Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St., is decked out like the ballet's Kingdom of Sweets. But the fundraiser's musical entertainers are strictly contemporary. Baritone Jack Neubeck, who's acted in multiple Broadway musicals, joins jazz musician Jeff Haskell in classic holiday tunes. Master zither player Hermann Hastreiter adds an exotic touch. Family-friendly high tea is at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 7; an adults-only soirée is at 7 p.m. Tickets cost $75; 903-1445.
The Ballet Arizona Nutcracker, a visually splendid production that debuted in 2006, takes over Symphony Hall, 225 E. Adams St., in downtown Phoenix for much of December. The Phoenix Symphony plays live. Danced by ballerinas and danseurs plucked by artistic director Ib Andersen from all over the world, it runs at various times from Friday, Dec. 12, to Sunday, Dec. 28. Tickets range from $10 to $117; kids younger than 12 get discounts in most sections. (602) 381-1096; (602) 938-2787; Ticketmaster's Web site.
Ballet Magnificat gets the last Nutcracker word, with the last Tucson performance before Christmas. Artistic director Kandis Meinel imports a quartet of UA dancers to join the cast of 50 from her Creative Dance Arts studio. Handling the men's lead roles are Zachary Heller, a returnee from last year, and newcomers Lane Blue, Jared Mesa and Chris Selbie. A trio of studio teachers, Meghan Lloyd, Sarah Fisher and Sarah Bjorndahl, take turns as Sugar Plum, and three Claras show the wonder of Christmas: Kaitlin Lloyd (Sarah's sister), Ariangilee Foley and Gabrielle Malkin. Showtimes are 1 and 5 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 20, and 1 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 21, at the Pima College West Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets cost $25 adults, $20 seniors and military, $15 for kids up to age 17. Tickets are at the box office, 206-6986, or studio, 887-5658.