Hard Nut to Crack

Ballet Arizona is just a shell locally, but other companies fill the bowl with 'Nutcrackers.'

Once upon a fiscally fat time, Ballet Arizona was a bi-city ballet company that staged full seasons in both Phoenix and Tucson.

When financial woes hit two years ago, the company trimmed its Tucson venture to just two productions: one fall concert plus The Nutcracker. Last year, the dancers ventured down I-10 only in December, for the sole purpose of portraying the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara and the other characters of the popular holiday confection. This year, the Phoenix-based troupe isn't coming at all.

"Ticket sales don't even cover 50 percent of our expenses," artistic director Ib Andersen and executive director Sherry New explained in a letter to Tucson patrons. The company will dance The Nutcracker in Phoenix, but without a Tucson business stepping up as a local sponsor, "it is just not fiscally prudent" for the troupe to perform in the Old Pueblo this season.

But the loss of Ballet Arizona leaves an open Nutcracker field for Tucson's own flourishing ballet troupes. Three separate renditions are on the boards the weekend of December 6-8; the players are Tucson Regional Ballet, presenting its lovable Southwest Nutcracker, Tucson Metropolitan Dance Co. and A Time to Dance, a children's dance studio. Ballet Tucson offers up its classic Victorian version the following weekend, December 13 and 14.

The two leading local companies, Tucson Regional and Ballet Tucson, draw most of their performers from among the advanced students in their well-regarded schools, but this year both also have hired out-of-town stars to dance the leading roles. With impressive credits ranging from American Ballet Theater to White Oak Dance Project to Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the visitors may well help fill Tucson's Nutcracker gap.

Not that the locals are gloating about Ballet Arizona's absence.

"I feel bad about it," says Linda Walker, artistic director of Tucson Regional Ballet. "Our kids used to be in it. The professionalism helps raise standards for all of us."

Adds Mary Beth Cabana, Ballet Tucson artistic director, "Tucson's support of ballet is sketchy. ... But if they're not doing well it's not good for any of us."

Still, the locals may well snare new audience members who would otherwise have paid top dollar for the Ballet Arizona show. And truth be told, last year's Ballet Arizona production felt like a second-city, B-team effort. The Phoenicians used recorded music instead of the full orchestra of Christmases past, and deployed a skeletal crew of dancers so skimpy that the big Music Hall stage looked downright depopulated. That's not a problem with the locals, who enlist scores of cutely costumed little kids to plump up their sumptuousness ratings, indispensable to a proper Nutcracker. The local productions do all use recorded music, though.

Here's a rundown:

Tucson Regional Ballet. Yvonne Cutaran and Kenneth Larson, both former principals with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, reprise the roles of the Prickly Pear Fairy and the Caballero in A Southwest Nutcracker.

"We like to switch (guest stars) but they were so fabulous we asked them to come a third year," says Walker, who shares choreography credit with former co-artistic director Carolyn Wallace and new co-artistic director Gary McKenzie. "She's exquisite, just gorgeous, and Kenneth is wonderful. They're not just beautiful dancers; they're nice to our kids. They're good role models."

Now in its ninth year, A Southwest Nutcracker transforms E.T.A. Hoffmann's Germanic tale into an Arizona fantasy replete with dancing copper queens and coyotes. Tchaikovsky's 1892 music remains the same, but Hoffmann's European Clara becomes a Hispanic Maria. Alexis Mondragon takes the part. Previously a Ballet Arizona Clara, Mondragon has studied in the summers at ABT and Kirov Ballet in Washington. "She's a powerful little 15-year-old," Walker says. David Champe, age 19, who started for the company 10 years ago as a Roadrunner on skates, portrays the Nutcracker.

For this year's show, featuring some 90 dancers, McKenzie has devised fresh choreography for the Chile Peppers and the Snow Queen. "It gives things an uplift," Walker says. "Our company standards keep going up."

Tucson Metropolitan Dance Co. Now under new management after Richard France's retirement last summer, the company soldiers on with a new production at Muse, the renovated Y on Sixth Street. This Nut sports all new choreography by artistic director Jack Wiley, and by Amy Goodelle and Beth Floress.

"We have 60 in the cast. Most are kids from the studio," says board president Kathryn Townsend. "We have no outside guest artists. I feel strongly that it's supposed to be a community-based dance company."

The exception is Thom Lewis, a well-known local choreographer and dancer, currently co-artistic director of FUNHOUSE Movement Theater. "Thom is our Drosselmeier," Townsend reports. "He's great."

Taking the leads are Megan Hurst as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Michael Darnell as the Cavalier. Both are high school students who study dance at France Academy of Dance.

A Time to Dance, a children's dance studio, puts on a Nutcracker choreographed by artistic director DeeDee Doell. The production stars students Josh Taylor as the Cavalier, Hannah Goff as Clara and Gretchen Hill as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Ballet Tucson has the longest-running version in town; an elegant traditional rendering complete with painted Victorian backdrops and falling snow, it showcases well over 120 dancers. This year two teams of guest artists with impressive credentials portray the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.

"John Gardner just left ABT after 20 or 25 years," Cabana reports, "and he also danced with White Oak with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Amanda McKerrow has been a principal dancer with ABT for many years. And they're both now guest artists with the Washington (D.C.) Ballet." The husband-and-wife team will dance the two evening shows. For the Saturday matinee, Gina Ribera, formerly of the Cleveland and Norwegian ballets, dances with Matthew Carter, formerly of the Ohio Ballet.

"Gina was a beautiful Cinderella for us last May," Cabana says. "She's a talented actress."

Two Tucson adults, Cesar Rubio and Thom Gilliam, alternate as the Snow King, and Ballet Arts' own well-trained students share the other principal roles. Joy Marsalla and Maggie Mullin alternate Clara, and Hayley Kisel, Aurora Frey and Maili Alvarado all dance the Snow Queen.

For those craving a bigger Nutcracker fix, Ballet Tucson hosts a fund-raising "Sugar Plum High Tea" Saturday, December 7, at the Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm, with two seatings, at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tucson's own Linda Ronstadt will sing Christmas carols with an a cappella choir, and the young dancers will prance around in their costumes. Tickets cost $100. For reservations call 903-1445.

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