Dances of the Season

Nutcrackers galore and a Solstice celebration bring light and Christmas joy to Tucson stages

Maya Hughes dances the Prickly Pear Fairy this weekend in Tucson Regional Ballet’s Southwest Nutcracker
Maya Hughes dances the Prickly Pear Fairy this weekend in Tucson Regional Ballet’s Southwest Nutcracker
'Tis the season to be jolly.

Especially if you're a dance fan.

Each December, thousands of dancers take to stages all over the country to dance The Nutcracker, the beloved Christmas tradition. Set to a splendid score by Tchaikovsky, the 1892 ballet was created in Russia by two choreographers, the French Petipa and the Russian Ivanov, and based on a story by a German, E.T.A. Hoffman.

It took a while for this international artwork to get to the U.S.—the first production stateside was in San Francisco in 1944—but nowadays it's prized more in America than anywhere else.

Tucson has a cornucopia of Nutcrackers, with nearly every dance studio taking on the story of a young girl's journey into the Land of Sweets. Ballet Tucson, the city's only professional ballet troupe, stages the biggest Nutcracker, with 100 pros, apprentices and students onstage. Tucson Regional Ballet's Southwest Nutcracker has 60 dancers, including guest dancers from the UA who perform with the company's advanced high school students.

For dance lovers already weary of the Nut, ZUZI Dance provides a Solstice dance alternative this weekend.

We can't cover all the Nuts, but here's the lowdown on our favorites.

Tucson Regional Ballet steps up first, dancing its charming Southwest Nutcracker this Saturday and Sunday. Tucson Symphony Orchestra plays the Tchaikovsky score live, and, as co-artistic director Jeffrey Hughes says, "It's wonderful to dance to live music."

This production is set not in snowy Europe but in sunny 1880s Tucson, and the characters are mostly Mexican. The Zorro-like Tío Diego (Gregory Taylor), not Drosselmeyer, sets the action in motion, and the young girl given a magic nutcracker is named Maria (Anastasia Hamilton), not Clara.

The ballet also honors the desert. There's a Prickly Pear Fairy (Maya Hughes) instead of a Sugar Plum; an army of coyotes, not mice; and a painted backdrop featuring cacti and mountains.

Among the UA Dance guest artists joining the student dancers, UA teacher Lorin Mathis takes on the primo part of Caballero. Dance major JaVonte' Carney dances the Gambler Doll and Tumbleweed.

Taylor, a UA artist-in-residence, is a hilarious Tío Diego, says new executive director Bridget Wilde. "He's got good comic timing. He steals the scene."

One thing that's changed is the retirement of Linda Walker, who co-founded the company and school in the early '80s, and co-choreographed The Southwest Nutcracker in the early '90s.

"Linda really built a fantastic legacy," Wilde says. "It's so hard to keep a nonprofit going. She did it by sheer force of will."

A Southwest Nutcracker, performed by Tucson Regional Ballet and Tucson Symphony Orchestra, plays at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 15; in Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.

Tickets, $32 and $38, are available at box office, with a small fee for credit card use. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and two hours before performances. Free parking in Lot A for ticket buyers. Info-only phone 791-4101. Tickets also available for a hefty fee at, 1-800-653-8000.


The respected Rincon Ballet's traditional Nutcracker is also this weekend, 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 13, and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14, at Vail Theatre of the Arts, 10701 E. Mary Ann Cleveland Way.

Marquez Johnson, an acclaimed star of the now-closed Artifact Dance and subject of a recent profile in the Tucson Weekly, is one of three pro artists who will join in with the teen dancers. Tickets $14 and $18 regular; $12 and $16 seniors and children; online at or at the door, starting one hour before showtime.  


ZUZI Dance adds seasonal diversity this weekend and next with its annual dance-and-music Solstice Celebration, this year called Poetry Gesture: Earth and Air. Marking the shortest day and longest night in the calendar, the Solstice, on Dec. 21, also ushers in the return of the light.

Nannette Robinson, artistic director of the modern dance company, chose the poetry theme.

"Joy Harjo was named the first Native American U.S. poet laureate," she explains, "and I love the poet Mary Oliver, who passed away this year."

The show opens with a reading of Harjo's poem "Remember," combined with dancing by Maddie Brown and guitar music played by Andrea Gudrune.

Poetry runs throughout the concert, which presents 12 pieces, composed by choreographers including Robinson and ZUZI's Aja Squires, and guest artists from FUNHOUSE and Dancesequences. Elizabeth Falcon, a poet and teacher, worked with ZUZI's adult community dancers to write their own poems to accompany their dance.

The whole show is infused with live music, with Gudrune performing on harp and electric violin in addition to guitar. And a number of aerial dances send performers skyward on flying trapezes.

ZUZI Solstice Show is 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 14; 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 15; and 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 20, at The Scoundrel & Scamp Theatre, in the Historic YWCA, 738 N. Fifth Ave., at University. $18 general; $12 seniors, students with ID and military. Tickets available in office or online at 629-0237.

Ballet Tucson's classic Victorian Nutcracker doesn't go on the boards until after Christmas. The production—replete with velvet dance dresses, drifting snowflakes and a soaring Christmas tree—will run on the weekend of Dec. 28-29.

The show lands in the lull between Christmas and New Year's, and artistic director Mary Beth Cabana hopes fans will fill the gap by taking holiday visitors to the ballet.

And, after all, the dancers are paid professionals.

"Our main currency is the high quality of our dancers," Cabana says. "We have a lot of new dancers and they're fresh, men and women both. They're super strong."

Ballet Tucson has been able to recruit better and better dancers recently, in part because the troupe performs works by the likes of George Balanchine and Christopher Wheeldon.

Casey Myrick and Elizabeth Kanning, two new company dancers who performed beautifully in Wheeldon "Five Movements" in October, will dance in the Spanish dance in Nutcracker.

Jenna Johnson, the troupe's superb prima ballerina, also danced in the Wheeldon; she will perform her tour-de-force Sugar Plum Fairy for the 16th time at Ballet Tucson.

Principal dancer Megan Steffens, who played the female lead in Jekyll & Hyde, alternates with Johnson as Sugar Plum. Taylor Johnson and Shannon Quirk share the role of Snow Queen, dancing in the intricate snow scene choreography created by Cabana and assistant artistic director Chieko Imada.

All of these dancers, Cabana says, are "really wonderful." Ballet Tucson performs The Nutcracker at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 28; 1 and 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 29, Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets $30 to $58 general; seniors, students, military $26 to $40, at box office, 791-4101. See hours above. Tickets also at Ticketmaster for a fee via or phone at 800-745-3000.

One final Nutcracker, also known as El Cascanueses, is also after Christmas, at 2 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 28, and Sunday, Dec. 29. It's an adorable kid concert, starring young southside dancers trained by pros at Dancing in the Streets. Guest dancers perform the adult parts and The Civic Orchestra of Tucson provides live music. At Leo Rich Theatre in the TCC complex, 260 S. Church. Tickets available at box office; $13.50 to $36; students, military and seniors get discounts of $1 or $2. Box office info at 791-4101. 298-7738;

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