Nutcrackers Galore

A cavalcade of dancers, sugar plums and even a dancing cop pirouette on Tucson stages

Christmas is a little more than two weeks away, but there's still plenty of time to see The Nutcracker, the 19th-century Russian ballet that's become a fixture of the American holiday season.

Nutcrackers are cracking open all over the country in dance troupes large and small—and Tucson is in on the fun. Most of the local dance studios for children put together a performance about the little girl, her magical Nutcracker doll and her journey into the Land of Sweets, but two Tucson productions stand out.

Ballet Tucson is the only professional ballet company in town, and its Nutcracker fields 35 highly trained—and paid!—professional dancers, including outstanding prima ballerinas Jenna Johnson and Megan Steffens. The troupe puts on a lovely classical version of the 1892 ballet, complete with falling snow, richly colored Victorian costumes and intricate choreography. And the pros on stage are joined by adorable little kid and teen dancers from its affiliated Ballet Arts School, adding up to 100 people in the show.

Tucson Regional Ballet's Southwest Nutcracker deploys advanced student dancers in its school and guest stars from the University of Arizona School of Dance, including a former pro with Charlotte Ballet, along with equally adorable kid dancers. It boasts a live music performance by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra of Tchaikovsky's beloved Nutcracker score.

And TRP sets the European tale right here in America. Its charming Southwest Nutcracker takes place in 1880s Tucson: the story's mice soldiers are transformed into coyotes, the mysterious Drosselmeyer becomes Tío Diego, and the heroine is a Mexican girl living in a territorial house in the Old Pueblo.

Even so, the two troupes' decidedly different versions of the ballet hearken back to a common history. The Nutcracker is drawn from an old German story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. Famed choreographer Petipa based his ballet on Alexandre Dumas's reworking of the tale; the work debuted to Tchaikovsky's music in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892.

It was not until 1944 that the San Francisco Ballet staged its first full American performance. But it was George Balanchine who made it an American staple. In 1954, the Russian-born choreographer brought the version he remembered from his childhood to the New York City Ballet. Today, that production's DNA flows in every American Nutcracker, including those in the Old Pueblo.

Here are some fun facts about the two top local productions, both of them now in their 24th years:

Tucson Regional Ballet's Southwest Nutcracker, Dec. 9 and 10.

Dascha Letson, dancing the dream role of the Prickly Pear Fairy, counterpart of the traditional Sugar Plum Fairy, practically grew up in the Tucson Regional Ballet studio.

"She started at the age of 3, and she was always eager to learn," says company artistic director Linda Walker. "She was bright-eyed. She always thought working at the bar was 'so much fun.'"

Now 17, Letson spent the last two summers studying in intensive workshops at the prestigious Joffrey Ballet.

"She's a beautiful dancer," Walker says. "She's definitely pre-professional."

Letson will dance Prickly Pear in all three of the Southwest Nutcracker concerts this weekend, partnered by guest dancer Alejandro MullerDahlberg. A student at the UA School of Dance, he will take on the role of Caballero, elsewhere known as Cavalier.

North Dakotan Muller Dahlberg, who played the Nutcracker in the troupe's production last year, is one of four guest dancers from UA Dance. Gregory Taylor, dancing the role of Nutcracker this year, is the pro who danced for five years with Ballet Charlotte before coming to the UA. Aaron Smith of Detroit, a grad student in the MFA program, plays Tío Diego. Mitchell McCroskey, from Kansas, will dance Tumbleweed, a challenging gymnastic role.

The guest artists are "all wonderful," Walker says.

"They're kind to the children. They make rehearsals very pleasant."

About 90 people perform in the production, from little kids on up to the senior company dancers and guest artists. A team of local adults play the party guests in the opening scene. One regular, Christopher McNamara, is a police officer with the Tucson Police Department.

"He started doing the Nutcracker when his daughter was in the company," Walker says.

His daughter no longer dances, but her cop dad has soldiered on, stepping out each year on the Nutcracker stage.

Ballet Tucson's The Nutcracker

Dec. 22 to 24

The pro company's 35 dancers are stronger than ever after dancing a busy fall season, artistic director Mary Beth Cabana says, and they're fired up and ready to go.

"I'm excited," she says. "We've hired a lot of new people. We had to accommodate the Balanchine."

In October the troupe performed Balanchine's 1975 Walpurgisnacht Ballet, a challenging dance that requires no fewer than 24 female dancers.

"We have good female talent," Cabana says, but the newcomers are not all women. The troupe also has some new men, including, coincidentally, an alumnus of Charlotte Ballet, Anthony Schweigardt. He'll dance in the sensuous Arabian piece with Taylor Johnson, who beautifully danced the part of the lead woman in Walpurgisnacht. A newcomer from Ballet Austin, Michael Erickson, will pair with Jennifer Martin in the Arabian piece, a work that is double-cast.

Jenna Johnson, long the company's prima ballerina, will dance the Sugar Plum Fairy with the top male dancer, Isaiah Sumler, dancing the Cavalier. These demanding roles are triple-cast; the other sets of partners are Megan Steffens with Vasily Boldin and Laura Lunde with Mauricio Vergara, all of them audience favorites.

The production also marks the return of a talented Tucson ballerina who grew up in the troupe and went on to dance professionally in companies in Birmingham, San Diego and the Bay Area. Formerly known as Aurora Frey, and now going by Aurora Ledesma, she'll dance the plum role of the Snow Queen. Her partner will be Leo McGrath, another Ballet Austin alumni.

"It's nice for us to have her back," Cabana says.

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