Season's Last 'Nutcracker'

Ballet Tucson takes its version of the Christmas classic right up to Christmas Eve

'Twas the week before Christmas, and all through the shop,

The dancers were prancing, and the sewing couldn't stop.

Finished costumes were hung in the wardrobes with care;

All knew that The Nutcracker soon would be there.

Lynn Lewis, a costumer and seamstress for Ballet Tucson, looked up from her work one day last week, needle in hand.

"On Sunday, I finally felt I had gotten to the top of the mountain," she said.

After weeks of stitching new costumes for the company's traditional Nutcracker and refurbishing the old, Lewis and her colleague, Kathleen Elsberry, were almost finished.

Glittery tutus, candy-striped pantaloons and lush dresses in Christmas colors occupied every available space in the lobby and corridors of the storefront studio.

Still, with days to go, Lewis was hand-stitching a new black-velvet jacket for Drosselmeyer, the magician who gets the action going in Act 1.

The company required a new Drosselmeyer outfit this year, she said, because Daniel Precup is taking on the dramatic role for the first time. Precup is tall—very tall—and the costume used in the past just wouldn't do.

"We needed a new, longer cape," Lewis said. "A huge, long cape," plus Victorian-style knickers and a shirt with sleeves long enough for Precup's attenuated limbs.

"Mary Beth," Lewis added, stabbing the cloth with her needle, "is the caboose that pushes me along."

That would be Mary Beth Cabana, artistic director and guiding light of the company, which is staging its traditional Nutcracker on the very cusp of Christmas. Its four performances are danced over three days, beginning on Thursday and ending on Saturday, Christmas Eve.

Staged by Tucson's only professional ballet company, The Nutcracker deploys some 100 dancers, including the professional dancers, apprentices and students from Ballet Arts school. The setting is classic Victorian, with a giant Christmas tree in a sturdy bourgeois mansion in Act 1, and a fantasy Land of Sweets in Act 2.

In the final days of preparation, as Lewis stitched away in the costume-stuffed front room; meanwhile, dancers pirouetted in the studios. Precup, now also ballet master, guided a half-dozen performers through "Arabian" in one room, while Cabana was leading nearly 20 through "Snow" in another. Tchaikovsky's music for each segment battled it out in the corridors.

"Snow" is the lovely scene that ends Act 1, with snowflakes falling softly from the rafters over a stage full of ballerinas in flowing dresses. In the studio, dressed in T-shirts and dark leotards, the dancers were worlds away from the visions in white lace they would be a week hence.

Cabana's version of "Snow" is particularly complicated—and elegant. She has her ballerinas repeatedly form small circles and then split up, moving diagonally across the stage in different directions, moving seamlessly past each other. It requires of the choreographer both a delicate eye for snowflake patterns and a traffic cop's skill at preventing collisions.

In the rehearsal, as the dancers crossed and crisscrossed each other on the floor, the sharp-eyed Cabana kept up a steady litany of corrections.

"Shoulders, girls!" she called out. "Look right at your hand. Watch your turnout. Stomach! Lift your chest!"

But she finished with a compliment.

"That's nice, girls. This is really hard. I've done a lot of snow scenes in my life. This is right up there with the hardest ones."

Cabana danced professionally with Cleveland Ballet, Ballet Oklahoma and other troupes. She's run Ballet Tucson for 26 seasons, and as a professional company with paid dancers since 2004. Quite a few of the 30 company members—both full dancers and apprentices—are new this season, and Cabana is eager to show them off in The Nutcracker.

One of the newcomers, Akari Manabe, a Japanese ballerina who previously danced in Europe, will dance the prized role of Snow Queen in one performance only.

"We're giving her a chance," Cabana said.

Dressed in a practice white-net skirt over a maroon leotard, Manabe rehearsed the pas de deux with Benjamin Tucker, who will dance the Snow King in all four shows.

"He's a good partner," Cabana explained. "He can partner anybody."

Tucker showed his skill as he spun the willowy Manabe around and raised her skyward.

"Spot! Spot!" Cabana called out as the two dancers worked their way through strenuous lifts and turns. As Manabe sailed through the air, aloft in Tucker's arms, the director advised, "Cross your ankle for the bluebird lift!"

The company's up-and-coming star, Megan Terry, will also dance Snow Queen, alternating with Hadley Jalbert and Manabe. Terry will share Sugar Plum with Jenna Johnson, the company's longtime prima ballerina. Stuart Lauer takes on Cavalier, who dances the showcase grand pas de deux with Sugar Plum.

Four young girls from Ballet Arts studio share the part of Clara, the little girl who gets the magical nutcracker from Drosselmeyer. Kendra Clyde and Sierra Sebastian, who both danced Clara last year, alternate with first-time Claras Brittney Askren and Natasha Tsakanikas.

The Friday matinee will host students from Tully, Cavett and Pueblo Gardens elementary schools who get free weekly dance lessons from Ballet Tucson dancers, courtesy of private sponsors. Some 500 tickets have been distributed to the second- and third-graders and their families.

In the past, Ballet Tucson had an orchestra playing the Tchaikovsky score. With the recession on, Cabana said she made the decision to forgo the live music in order to keep paying her dancers—and to keep them dancing. When The Nutcracker starts,

They'll spring to the stage, give dance-lovers a tickle,

And away they'll all fly, like the down of a thistle.

And the dancers will exclaim, 'ere they dive out of sight,

Happy Nutcracker to all, and to all a good night.