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December Tradition 

The holidays have arrived: Here's your yearly 'Nutcracker' preview

Let's try eine kleine Nutcracker quiz.

How old is this perennial Christmas favorite?

Answer: 113. Premiering on Dec. 18, 1892, at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, the ballet was choreographed to Tchaikovsky's music by Ivanov, the relatively unknown assistant to the famous Petipa.

Extra credit: Why didn't Petipa stage it himself?

The master fell ill during rehearsals, but the scuttlebutt had it that he bowed out in fear of a critical disaster. Nutcracker scholar Jennifer Fisher writes that even Tchaikovsky, while he was working on the score, confessed to a nephew in a letter, "This ballet is far weaker than The Sleeping Beauty--no doubt about it." And in fact, critical reception was decidedly mixed.

When did this European import make its American debut?

Answer: 61 years ago, in 1944. Bonus points for knowing that the San Francisco Ballet gave it its first full-length U.S. production.

Who was responsible for turning The Nutcracker into an indispensable American Christmas ritual?

Answer: George Balanchine, who choreographed his version at the New York City Ballet in 1954, drawing on his memories of dancing the ballet at the Maryinsky.

How many American versions have been staged each Christmas since Balanchine made it de rigueur?

Answer: anybody's guess. Nearly every ballet company in the United States stages a Nutcracker every Christmas, partly because it almost always makes money, and partly because audiences love it and expect it.

This season, Tucson is treated to three productions in the city, and one in Sahuarita. The more venturesome can travel up to Phoenix, where Ballet Arizona is keeping its Nutcracker to itself. It's been several years since the company traveled down I-10 to give Tucsonans a taste of its artistry.

But the Old Pueblo's two leading ballet troupes offer up highly polished renditions of their own, each performed to live music by an orchestra. Ballet Tucson is now a professional company, and its paid staff of 10 dancers will dance the major roles, complemented by apprentices, advanced students and scores of cute little kids. Tucson Regional Ballet imports two stars from San Francisco Ballet, who'll be joined by this troupe's apprentices, advanced students and scores of little kids.

Here's a week-by-week checklist of Nutcracker mania:


WEEKEND ONE, DEC. 2-4

Musicians from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra play for the Tucson Regional Ballet's 12th annual Southwest Nutcracker, full of coyotes and tíos and copper queens. After one season at the TCC Music Hall, A Southwest Nutcracker is back in Leo Rich because of a scheduling problem, but the smaller theater has better sight lines for dance.

"We invested in a huge, wonderful tree last year," says artistic director Linda Walker, of the tree that grows and grows in Act 1. "But we can still fit it in Leo Rich."

Guest artist Chidozie Nzerem of the San Francisco Ballet dances the Caballero, the Southwestern counterpoint to the traditional Cavalier, as well as the Gunslinger. He last guest-starred here two years ago. "The audience loved him," Walker says. "They were gasping out loud. And not only is he a gorgeous dancer; he's friendly, optimistic and great with the kids." His regular partner, Sherri LeBlanc, comes to Tucson Regional for the first time to dance the Prickly Pear, a fairy elsewhere known as Sugar Plum. LeBlanc, formerly with New York City Ballet, is on hiatus from San Francisco, after giving birth to a baby earlier this year.

Among the locals, Paetia Mechler, a Doolen eighth-grader, shares the lead part of Maria (aka Clara) with Jessica Holland, a sophomore at Catalina High. Simon Wexler, a seventh-grader at Tucson Hebrew Academy, dances the Nutcracker. University High senior Seth Burch, an accomplished gymnast and competition jump-roper, makes a muscular Tumbleweeds, the part akin to the Russian in traditional versions. Brittany DeGrofft, 15, plays the Native American Queen.

"We move the location from Germany to Tucson," Walker explains. "We have cavalry and coyotes, and a Spanish hacienda. Candyland becomes a Desert Dream."

Tucson Regional Ballet's A Southwest Nutcracker is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3; and 1 and 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at TCC's Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets cost $31 adults, $21 students, children, seniors, groups. Info's at the TCC box office, 791-4266; the Tucson Regional box office, 885-0862; and Ticketmaster, 321-1000.

Ballet Continental stages its 20th-anniversary Nutcracker down in Sahuarita. Mike Cain of Green Valley has designed new some sets, and the 75 cast members will sport some new costumes. Choreographed by artistic director Lisa Baker DiGiacomo, this traditional Nutcracker features Brittani Johnson and Emily VanWagenen as alternating Claras. Guest artist Wally Meinel of Tucson dances the Cavalier.

Ballet Continental performs The Nutcracker at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 2; 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at Sahuarita Auditorium, 350 W. Sahuarita Road, at Interstate 19. Admission costs $12 general, $10 seniors, $7 for students and children. Advance tickets cost $2 less. Order them at 326-7887.

Ballet Tucson rounds up Linda Ronstadt, the Tucson Boys Chorus and harpist Christine Vivona to perform holiday music at its fifth annual Sugar Plum Tea at the Arizona Inn. On the menu is a traditional tea with all the trimmings, along with a silent auction and boutique. The fundraiser also features cast members performing short previews of The Nutcracker. The teas are at the Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St., at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, and 11 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 4. Tickets cost $75. Information is at 903-1445.


WEEKEND TWO, DEC. 9-11

Ballet Tucson celebrates its 20th anniversary season with its 11th annual Nutcracker. For the second year in a row, the Ballet Tucson Orchestra, whose musicians also perform for Arizona Opera, will play Tchaikovsky's music in this traditional production at Centennial Hall. Arizona Opera's Cal Kellogg conducts.

"We create our own orchestra," says artistic director Mary-Beth Cabana.

But Cabana is not importing guest dancers. "My principal professional dancers in my own troupe are the dancers," she says. "We're excited that we have the caliber of dancers who can pull it off."

Her stars are Ballet Tucson regulars Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup, formerly of Oakland Ballet and the Romanian National Opera, dancing Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, and Joanne Jaglowski, a former principal with Cleveland Ballet. She alternates the part of Sugar Plum and also takes on the grand pas de deux, with partner Mark Krieger.

Company choreographer Mark Schneider has re-done the Snow Scene entirely, in part to keep it fresh, Cabana says, and in part to make use of the troupe's new male dancers. Instead of just a Snow Queen and King dancing among the Snow Maidens, the new scene features two pairs of Snow Princesses and Princes. Pros Meredith Dulaney and César Rubio are the Snow Queen and Snow King.

That doesn't mean that the advanced students and apprentices don't get parts. Around 150 dancers, including local kids, participate in the Victorian-style extravaganza, complete with velvet costumes, falling snow and a giant growing Christmas tree. Apprentices Celina Ginn and Megan Terry are the Snow Princesses; Clayton Frey and Isaac Sharratt alternate the Harlequin, Soldier Doll and Mouse King, and a pair of 13-year-olds, Mia Wright and Irina Streitfeld, share the part of Clara. Twelve-year-old Aaron Sharratt plays Drosselmeyer's nephew.

"We have national-level pro dancers now," Cabana says. "But we're still developing the talent here."

Ballet Tucson presents The Nutcracker at the UA's Centennial Hall at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 9; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 10; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 11. Tickets cost $26 to $46 general, $23 to $35 students, seniors, groups. Call 621-3341.

Ballet Arizona begins its 2 1/2-week run of 24 Nutcrackers this weekend. The fully professional company now has 27 dancers, who are joined on stage by students and children from its ballet school. Ib Andersen, a veteran of New York City Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet, choreographed his own Nutcracker after arriving in Phoenix in 2000. The Phoenix Symphony plays live.

Ballet Arizona dances The Nutcracker at various times from Friday, Dec. 9, to Tuesday, Dec. 27, at Symphony Hall, 225 E. Adams St., Phoenix. No concerts Christmas Day. Top tickets cost $102 for all, no discounts; other tickets range from $10 to $71, with discounts for children, students, teachers, military and seniors. There's more information at www.balletaz.org, (888) 3BALLET and Ticketmaster, 321-1000.


WEEKEND THREE, DEC. 16-18

Dance Magnificat dances its Nutcracker in just 75 minutes, and then after intermission performs assorted company pieces. Sixty-two students from the company studio, Creative Dance Arts, are supplemented by UA dancers Nick Torres and Colby Foss, who share the part of Snow King. Lyndee Priest, 12, plays Clara.

Dance Magnificat performs at 6 p.m., Friday, Dec. 16; 1 and 6 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 17; and 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec 18, at Pima College West Proscenium Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $18. Students get into the Friday evening show for $10. 887-5658.

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