Dueling Nutcrackers

Ballet Tucson, Tucson Regional Ballet and others prepare to perform that holiday classic

This year, sumptuous fabrics--velvets and silks and sparkles--are upping the ante in the annual Nutcracker battle of the ballets.

The two leading hometown productions, the classic Nutcracker by Ballet Tucson and A Southwest Nutcracker by Tucson Regional Ballet, annually add new delights to ratchet up the quality of their productions. The competition has been good for the troupes and good for Tucson: Both companies now perform to live music played by professional orchestras, and professional dancers take on the lead roles.

This time around, both troupes report tweaking their costumes.

"We have brand-new Snowflake costumes for the first time in many years," Tucson Ballet's Mary-Beth Cabana reported last week from her studio, where seamstresses were bent over their sewing machines even as she spoke. "We've changed the bodice. It's patterned almost in circles, with a silver icicle design. The white tulle skirts are calf-length and romantic."

Thirty ballerinas will wear the new dresses in the lovely Snowflake scene at the end of Act One, the same sequence that's made magical by a mini-performance by members of the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus.

Over at Tucson Regional Ballet, "We have party dresses to die for," countered Linda Walker. Walker and costume designer Geri Salmen flew to Los Angeles for two days of immersion shopping in the garment district, where they purchased yards and yards of beaded fabrics, trims and jewels. Each of the new dresses, worn by the grown-up guests in the opening Party Scene, "takes 40 hours to make," Walker said. "They're long flowing Victorian gowns with bustles. They belong in a glass case in a museum."

Nevertheless, the gowns will be twirling across the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall this weekend. Tucson Regional Ballet gets first crack at the stage during the three weeks of Nut-o-Mania about to engulf the Dancing Pueblo.

Tucson is not alone in proffering a cornucopia of productions of the 1892 Russian ballet. Ever since George Balanchine first staged Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet in 1954, basing his version on the Nuts he had danced as a child in St. Petersburg, the odd story of the little girl and her visit to the Land of the Sweets has become an American Christmas tradition. The music by Tchaikovsky stays the same, but artistic directors routinely tweak the original choreography, attributed to Petipa's assistant Ivanov.

This year, Tucson gets three separate productions. After the two powerhouse versions, by Ballet Tucson and Tucson Regional Ballet, Dance Magnificat comes in the final week. A fourth Nutcracker, by Ballet Continental, is down south in Sahuarita, while a fifth, by Ballet Arizona, is up north in Phoenix. Also in the Valley of the Sun, Center Dance Ensemble offers an antidote for those suffering from Sugar Plum fatigue: a holiday production of Snow Queen.

Here's a list of Nutcrackers in chronological order. Clip and save!

Weekend One, Dec. 1-3: A Southwest Nutcracker, reset in Tucson of the 1880s, translates the Germanic tale to the sunny Southwest, with the mice metamorphosing into coyotes, toy soldiers into U.S. Cavalry men, Spanish dancers into chili peppers, and Tatars into tumbleweeds.

Forty musicians from the Tucson Symphony Orchestra play the beloved Tchaikovsky score for this 13th annual production, while guest artists from the San Francisco Ballet dance the leads. Chidozie Nzerem is the Caballero, subbing for the Cavalier, and Brook Broughton, on leave from San Francisco, is the Prickly Pear Fairy, who replaces the fairy elsewhere known as Sugar Plum.

"She'll be in a wine-velvet burgundy tutu," said Walker. "She's gorgeous."

Michael Allen, a ballet-trained veteran of musical theater, dances Tío Diego, the Latino version of the mysterious Drosselmeyer, who brings a magical nutcracker as a gift for the little girl. Tucson Regional Ballet rechristens the little girl usually known as Clara as Maria. Paetia Mechler, a Sabino High School freshman who last year alternated the coveted part with another dancer, this year dances Maria at all four concerts. Mechler has a San Francisco Ballet connection, too: She studied at the competitive school last summer.

Mark Nichols is the Nutcracker, and Brittany DeGrofft and Michelle Warner share the part of the Snow Queen.

The local kids "are all in the senior company," Walker says, and they'll be joined at various times onstage by a cast of 100, most of them drawn from the company's Academy of Ballet. Walker shares credit for the evolving choreography with three co-artistic directors, Carolyn Wallace and Gary McKenzie, both now departed, and Sheri Giller, who just came on board.

"Sheri's been staging the previous choreography with full permission to tweak," Walker says. "She's very precise, and the quality of dancing is up."

A Southwest Nutcracker this year moves back to the TCC Music Hall, where "our Christmas tree grows taller." Shows are at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 1; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 2; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 3. Tickets cost $33 for adults and $21 for children, students, seniors and groups, available at the door, at the TCC box office (260 S. Church Ave.) or at Ticketmaster, for a fee, at 321-1000 or ticketmaster.com.

Ballet Continental turns out a classic European Nutcracker in the desert country south of Tucson. Artistic director Lisa Baker DiGiacomo, recently named most distinguished artist by the Greater Green Valley Arts Council, directs 75 dancers in the 21st annual production. Emily VanWagenen and Katherine Howard share the part of Clara; Tucson's Nicholas McLain heads down Interstate 19 to dance the Cavalier; and actor Rick McAtee takes on Drosselmeyer. Set designer Mike Cain has made some new backdrops and, like its Tucson counterparts, Ballet Continental has stitched up some glittering new costumes.

Ballet Continental performs The Nutcracker at 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 1, and Saturday, Dec. 2; and at 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 3, at Sahuarita Auditorium, 350 W. Sahuarita Road. Tickets cost $15 general, $12 seniors, $8 students and children 12 and younger. Advance tickets are $2 less; 326-7887.

Ballet Tucson gives a sneak preview of next weekend's show at its annual Sugar Plum Tea fundraiser and silent auction on Sunday, Dec. 3. Harpist Christine Vivona and the Tucson Boys Chorus provide the music, and costumed dancers will read The Nutcracker story aloud. The Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St., serves up high tea in two seatings, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. At the 7 p.m. soirée, a cash bar and adult fare are on the menu. $75 for high tea; $100 for the soiree; 903-1445.

Up in Phoenix, Center Dance Ensemble, led by former Tucsonan Frances Smith Cohen, provides a modern dance version of the wintry Hans Christian Andersen tale Snow Queen. The company's pros take on the leads, but a cast of 150 young dancers turns up as rosebuds, snowflakes and court ladies. Called a "civic treasure" by The Arizona Republic, the two-act concert begins three weekends of performances this Saturday. Shows are at 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 2; and 2 and 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 3; the concerts repeat at the same times on Dec. 9, 10, 16 and 17, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St. Tickets are $24 adults, $20 seniors, $12 students at the box office, (602) 252-8497, or through Ticketmaster for a fee.

Weekend Two, Dec. 8-10. Ballet Tucson claims a connection with Balanchine himself through its conductor, Cal Kellogg, who conducted the New York City Ballet toward the end of the choreographer's long career. For Ballet Tucson's Nutcracker, he leads some 40 musicians, many of whom also play for Arizona Opera.

Now delivering its 12th annual traditional Nutcracker, complete with Victorian costumes and falling snow, Ballet Tucson is in its third season as a professional company. The Christmas concert routinely wins the Best of TucsonTM poll for Best Dance Production.

"We're looking pretty good," Cabana said gleefully. "We're where we want to be."

Fresh from their Halloween premiere of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the company's paid dancers take the lead parts. Ballet Tucson's stars, the married couple Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup, dance the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. Michael Dunsmore and Stuart Lauer alternate the male parts in a brand-new Arabian section choreographed by new managing director Jeffrey Hughes; Samantha Chang and Joanne Jaglowski take turns with the writhing belly-dancing part.

The cast of 145 is rounded out with apprentices, trainees and dozens of kids from the Ballet Arts school, dressed as mice and gingerbread cookies and candy canes. Kids from the school getting their hour upon the stage include Mia Wright, who returns for a second year as Clara, sharing the part with first-timers Ausja Sugameli and Una Streicher.

Adult volunteers from the community also bravely take part. Timothy Kolosick, a UA music professor, "is the mayor every single year," Cabana said. "He hasn't missed it any year except for once when he went on sabbatical." The combination of community people and skilled professionals gives the production a "special holiday spirit."

This year, Hughes had a hand in the choreography, along with former American Ballet Theatre dancers Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner, who are helping train the dancers this season, and longtime assistant artistic director Chieko Imada.

"The bulk of it is mine," Cabana said, "but it's a collaboration with everybody."

Ballet Tucson stages The Nutcracker at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 8; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 9; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 10, at the UA's Centennial Hall. Tickets cost $29, $39 and $49 for adults; and $25, $37 and $49 for children, students and seniors. They're available at the box office at 621-3341; group tickets at 903-1445.

Ballet Arizona in Phoenix boasts that its revamped production has new choreography by artistic director Ib Andersen, new sets--and new costumes. The Phoenix Symphony does the musical honors. The company dances a grueling schedule of 22 concerts from Saturday, Dec. 9, through Wednesday, Dec. 27, at various times, with no shows on Mondays or Tuesdays, with the exception of Dec. 26. The dancers also get Christmas Day off. The shows are at Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St., Phoenix. Tickets cost $10 to $104; (602) 381-096; (888) 3BALLET; balletaz.org; tickemaster.com.

Weekend Three, Dec. 14-17. Dance Magnificat gets the final Nutcracker word in Tucson with five productions at the Pima Community College Center for the Arts Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Dancers from the company's studio, Creative Dance Arts, perform at 6 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 14, and Friday, Dec. 15; 1 and 6 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 16; and 1 and 6 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 17. Admission is $18; discounts available. 887-5658.