In A Nutshell

Five Dance Companies Take A Crack At The Classic Holiday Ballet.

WHO KNEW, BACK in 1892, when choreographer Marius Petipa teamed up with composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky to create The Nutcracker in old Russia, that their fairy tale would become the most popular ballet in the United States?

"The Nutcracker has become a phenomenon in America," says Ib Andersen, the Danish-born artistic director of Ballet Arizona. "It's not like that in Europe. There it's performed once in a while but it's not a tradition."

Andersen's not complaining. The Nutcracker is the salvation of many a financially strapped ballet company, including Ballet Arizona, which nearly closed last summer. Here in the Old Pueblo, Tucsonans can pick and choose this December from a grand total of five different Nutcrackers, the largest number ever. "Thank God for it," Andersen says. "We're surviving on it."

The ballet-féerie that would become the savior of American dance began life as a follow-up to Petipa's and Tchaikovsky's successful Sleeping Beauty, adapted two years earlier from a French fairy tale. (Petipa's retooled 1895 choreography for Tchaikovsky's earlier Swan Lake score completes the duo's remarkable trio of classical fairy ballets.) Their strange tale of a little girl and her magical nutcracker came from a German story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Its jolly first-act Christmas party gives way to a dark battle between mice and soldiers, then to a lyrical snow scene. The second-act Land of Sweets provides fireworks dancing of everything from Arabian to Russian styles. The ballet only became an American Christmas staple after George Balanchine re-created it in 1954, drawing on his childhood memories of productions in St. Petersburg.

Unfortunately, none of the Tucson productions offers live music, but they all use taped versions of what Andersen calls Tchaikovsky's "glorious score." And each has its own personality. Here's a roundup:

WEEKEND ONE: Ballet Arizona is first up, offering the most lavish and professional production. Andersen has re-choreographed the whole ballet, giving locals who missed his dazzling Autumn Repertory debut in October a first look at his considerable choreographic gifts.

"It's all different, with all new choreography," he said by telephone in between rehearsals in Phoenix last week. "Clara remains a girl throughout. (His predecessor, Michael Uthoff, had her growing into a woman in Act II.) Drosselmeier has an assistant, a kid who later becomes the Nutcracker and then the prince. ... I really tried to frame it from the point of view of a child, Clara. It's her story."

Andersen promises more dancing than in previous productions and lighting that will better highlight the dancers. Remaining from performances past will be the sumptuous costumes and sets, including the giant ostrich-feather Christmas tree that grows and grows. Some 90 dancers perform, including 60 Tucson children. Company pros take on the principal roles; Yen-Li Chen-Zhang and Judith Adee alternate as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Qisheng Zhang and Luis Torres portray her Cavalier.

Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 1, at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 2, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, December 3, at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $22 to $42 for adults, $11 to $21 for kids 12 and under, and $20 to $38 for seniors. Group discounts are available. Tickets are available at Ticketmaster (321-1000) and Ballet Arizona (1-888-3BALLET). Tickets are not available in advance at the TCC box office, but they will be sold at the door immediately before each performance.

WEEKEND TWO: A Southwest Nutcracker by the Tucson Regional Ballet switches the location from Old Europe to 1880s Tucson, transforming battling mice into coyotes and soldiers into cavalrymen. Dancing chili peppers, ocotillos, rattlesnakes and tumbleweeds replace the candy canes and bonbons of the original. Choreographed by artistic directors Linda Walker and Caroline Haatainen-Wallace, this charming southwestern version has become a local favorite. Danced primarily by the accomplished students of the Tucson School of Ballet, this production is spiced up by cameos by a pair of imported professional dancers. Yvonne Cutaran and Kenneth Larson, former principal dancers for Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, dance the Prickly Pear Fairy and the Caballero.

Curtain is at 7 p.m. Friday, December 8, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, December 9, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, December 10, at the TCC Leo Rich Theatre. Tickets are $12.75 for adults and $10.75 for seniors, students, children and groups. They're available at the box office and at all Ticketmaster outlets (321-1000).

WEEKEND THREE: The Nutcrackers come fast and furious, in two separate productions. Ballet Arts Foundation, which offers seven performances, more than any other Nutcracker group, is up first. Its elegant version is a traditional rendition complete with Victorian costumes, lush painted backdrops and falling snow. Artistic director Mary Beth Cabana gets choreography credit for the dances, performed for the most part by the well-trained students at her Ballet Arts school. The final two shows in the run will offer guest appearances by two professionals, Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriguez, both of Cleveland San Jose Ballet. Last in town in October to dance at the Ballet Tucson concert, the pair will dance the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier at the Tuesday and Wednesday evening performances.

The Ballet Arts show goes on at 7 p.m. Friday, December 15; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, December 16; 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday, December 17; and at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, December 19 and 20, at Pima Community College's Proscenium Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $18; for information call 623-3373.

Tucson Metropolitan Dance Company calls its production Clara's Dream, The Nutcracker, to distinguish it from its rivals. Directed by veteran Richard France, who also dances Drosselmeier, this troupe under assorted names has been in Tucson long enough to encompass two generations of dance. This year's Sugar Plum Fairy, Karen Pesqueira, is the daughter of Jane McWhorter Pesqueira, who danced the same role for the company in the first Nutcracker ever performed in the Music Hall, back in 1971 when the building was new. This traditional Victorian version will be performed by students from the France Academy of Dance and guest dancers from assorted Tucson studios.

Curtain for Clara's Dream, The Nutcracker rises at 7 p.m. Saturday, December 16, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, December 17, at the TCC Music Hall. Tickets are available at the box office for $10.75 for adults and $5.75 for children 12 and under. For more information call 327-0546.

WEEKEND FOUR: The performance closest to Christmas Day comes courtesy of A Time to Dance Studio. Now 4 years old, the studio takes its first crack at the holiday classic with The Nutcracker: Act II. Several scenes from Act I round out the concert, along with five original Christmas dances. Choreographed by artistic director Dee Dee Doell, the show is danced by her students. In Christmases past, A Time to Dance offered up the Tchaikovsky/Petipa Swan Lake, and an original Indian fantasy. Doell says the studio's dancers are now up to The Nutcracker challenge.

The show is at 2 p.m. Saturday, December 23, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $5, available at the door or by calling 320-1566 or 327-5137.

For more dance performances, see the listings on page 24.