Holidays on Pointe

Thanksgiving has come and gone, so that means it's 'Nutcracker' season!

The Nutcracker may be candy-caned and snowflake-strewn, but it's one of the most demanding dances around.

Take the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Don't be misled by her frothy tutu or glittering tiara.

"The Sugar Plum pas de deux is the most difficult role in ballet," declares Mary Beth Cabana, artistic director of Ballet Tucson. "The dancer has to be strong as an ox. It's really tough."

Ballet Tucson's Sugar Plum, prima ballerina Jenna Johnson, proves the point. She is a delicate beauty—with killer thighs and biceps, and a leap as high as the Catalinas.

Over at Tucson Regional Ballet, which each year does A Southwest Nutcracker, set in 1880s Tucson, a couple of powerhouse high school girls, Lindsey Felix and Stephanie Liu, dance the Prickly Pear Fairy, counterparts of Sugar Plum. Their male partners, college dancers at the UA, says executive director Linda Walker, continually marvel at the girls' strength.

"They tell me, 'Those girls are powerful.'"

The splendor—and yes, power—of the dancing in The Nutcracker, choreographed way back in 1892 by the legendary Petipa, is one of the biggest reasons The Nut's fans keep coming back Christmas after Christmas. Ever since 1954, when the Russian George Balanchine brought it to the New York City Ballet, The Nutcracker has been firmly established as a holiday staple in the U.S.

"It's one of the things people will do over the holiday, even if they don't go to dance normally," Cabana says.

They do it, Walker agrees, because "it's beautiful classical ballet, and it's fun."

Tucson steps up with seven local productions and a touring show; there's also a big-deal version up the road in Phoenix. Those Sugar Plums start leaping this weekend, and plié clear through to Christmas.

Week One

Ballet Continental gets the first Nutcracker word each year. Trained by the late George Zoritch, a proponent of the grand Russian tradition, artistic director Lisa Baker DiGiacomo stages her 27th edition down the road in Sahuarita, with a full complement of 64 dancers. Continental boasts three Sugar Plums this year, including Darby Downs, who has "danced in our Nutcracker all 27 years," DiGiacomo says. "She started as a mouse." Guest artist Nicholas McLain partners with Downs and the other two fairies, Andrea Pardi and Brittani Johnson. Visiting actor Rick McAtee is Drosselmeyer, the mysterious party guest who starts the fantasy rolling.

Ballet Continental's Nutcracker is at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 2, at Sahuarita Auditorium, 350 W. Sahuarita Road in Sahuarita. Tickets are $15 adults; $12 seniors age 55 and up; $8 students and children younger than 12; and $2 more at the door, available at; at Young Artists' Community Ballet Academy of Dance, 1100 Whitehouse Canyon Road; and at retail outlets in Green Valley and Sahuarita; 326-7887.

For the 12th annual Nutcracker performed by A Time to Dance, artistic director Dee Dee Doell has created "all new snow choreography," she says. And since the average age of dancers in the show is 15—old enough to be in toe shoes—"this year, the entire corps de ballet is on pointe." The 50 dancers include a few 50-somethings and "lots of little ones playing animals." Longtime studio dancer Jerrica Stewart once again takes on Sugar Plum, and Jacqueline Alverado is Clara.

A Time to Dance's Nutcracker is at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 30; and 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 1, at the Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $8 in advance at 320-1566, or $10 at the door;

Week Two

Ballet Arizona made its Big Apple debut in February, winning plaudits from The New York Times, whose critic gushed that artistic director Ib Andersen "has acquired a reputation as an artistic director of uncommon prowess in transforming Ballet Arizona ... into something special."

It's worth the trip up Interstate 10 to see Andersen's Nutcracker, a sumptuous affair with Tchaikovsky's score played live by the Phoenix Symphony. Fun fact: Dancers ran through 300 pairs of pointe shoes during last year's Nutcracker. The troupe dances the ballet 19 times, opening at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 7, and closing with a 2 p.m. matinee on Christmas Eve at Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St. in Phoenix. Tickets range from $18 to $122, with discounts for seniors, students and groups of 10 or more; available at (602) 381-1096; or at for a hefty fee;

Week Three

Tucson Regional Ballet has once again enlisted the Tucson Symphony Orchestra to play live for A Southwest Nutcracker. It's especially fitting in Arizona's centennial year to see the mice transformed into coyotes, the soldiers into cavalry, and the German family into a Hispanic familia in the Old Pueblo. Clara becomes Maria, danced by Sara Hickman; her Cavalier is a Caballero (alternated by Max Foster and Barton Cowperthwaite); and Drossemeyer is Tío Diego (Will Dingeldein).

All six guest artists are dance majors at the UA, and at least two have local roots. As a young modern dancer, Foster used to dazzle at Orts Theatre of Dance and FUNHOUSE movement theater. Paetia Mechler, who often starred at Tucson Regional Ballet as a teen, returns to play Mother Piñata.

The 90 dancers perform choreography that Walker and Carolyn Wallace first created in 1994; other artistic directors along the way, including the incumbent, Jeffrey Graham Hughes, have made their own contributions.

A Southwest Nutcracker is at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 15; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 16, at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $29 and $32, with discounts for seniors and scouts. They're available at, 885-0862; and for a fee, (800) 745-3000.

Ballet Rincon's artistic director, Jennifer Neuser, imports two dance stars for her eastside dance company's traditional Nutcracker. Mark Nichols of UA School of Dance dances Cavalier, and Christopher Compton, who danced for Twyla Tharp and as a guest artist with Pennsylvania Ballet, is Drosselmeyer. The studio's own Reed Neuser is Clara, and Hanna Herrington and Heylie Strachan alternate as Sugar Plum Fairy.

Neuser takes credit for most of the choreography, but this year, Cory Gram, a UA dance grad and alumnus of Ballet Tucson, created a new Sugar Plum Pas de Deux. Mika Deslongchamps contributed a new battle scene. And, as always, the production has a "magical growing Christmas tree!" company spokeswoman Diana Knoepfle says.

Ballet Rincon dances at 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 14; and 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 15, at Vail Theatre of the Arts, 10701 E. Mary Ann Cleveland Way; $10 and $14 adults; $8 and $12 seniors and children. Tickets are available at Ballet Rincon studio, 10544 E. Seven Generations Way, No. 200, and at the theater box office one hour before the concerts; 574-2804;

Arizona Dance Theatre presents a "good old traditional Nutcracker," assistant director Lauren Baquet cheerfully says. Fifty-five dancers, including a "lot of little ones" from the Creative Dance Arts studio, fill the starry stage of Pima's Proscenium Theatre. Guest artist Marquez Johnson, a UA dance grad who's now the dance teacher in the Flowing Wells district, dances the Nutcracker Prince. Seventeen-year-old Gabrielle Malkin, who's been with the studio since the age of 3, stars as Sugar Plum. The studio's Megan Lemcke is Clara. Artist director Kandis Meinel is the choreographer.

Arizona Dance Theatre performs at 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 16, at Pima Community College West Center for the Arts, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $23 and $25; available at the box office, 206-6986. For more info, contact the studio at 887-5658;

Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker, a traveling production from the country that invented ballet, hits Tucson toward the end of a grueling cross-country tour. It boasts 40 Russian dancers, silk puppets and a Christmas tree that's said to grow seven stories tall.

Moscow Ballet dances at 7:30 p.m., Monday, Dec. 17, and Tuesday, Dec. 18, at the Fox Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. Tickets range from $27.50 to $180; 547-3040;

Week Four

Ballet Tucson dances its traditional Victorian Nutcracker the weekend before the big day.

"It's wonderful for people to come right before Christmas," Cabana enthuses. "These are great dates."

The troupe, the only paid professional dance company in Tucson, is back at Centennial Hall after a three-year detour downtown to the Music Hall. Ballet Tucson's 30 pros lead a cast of 120 onstage, making this production the biggest in town.

Cavalier Stuart Lauer partners with Sugar Plum Fairy Johnson. Daniel Precup, fresh from fine dramatic turns as Quasimodo and the Devil in the company's season-opener last month, takes another turn as Drosselmeyer. Four teens from the school each get a shot at Clara: veterans Brittany Askren and Natasha Tsakanikas, reprising their Claras from last year, and newbies Abigail Pye and Grace Liatti.

Ballet Tucson dances at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 21; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 22; and 1 and 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 23, at UA's Centennial Hall. Tickets are $31 to $59 general; $27 to $41 for students/children/seniors; $20 to $32 for groups of 10 or more. Available at box office, 621-3341, and at Add $10 service fee for phone orders;

Dancing in the Streets Arizona dances a traditional ballet with a Latin twist. Even the title is bilingual: The Nutcracker Ballet—El Cascanueces. This studio prides itself on teaching ballet to southside kids who might never before have thought of pirouetting. The troupe is led by Joseph Rodgers, a native Tucsonan who danced at Feld Ballet and Ballet Chicago before returning home four years ago to start the kids' company.

Some 100 children and teens dance under the falling snow at the Fox. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild and the Arizona Daily Star's David Fitzsimmons promise to make an appearance—not in tutus, we trust. The volunteer musicians of the Civic Orchestra of Tucson play the Tchaikovsky score live.

Shows are at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 22; and 3 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 23, at the Fox Theatre, 17 W. Congress St. Tickets are $13 to $35; available at the box office, 547-3040, or at For more info, visit; 867-8489 and 298-7738.

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