Silver Nutcrackers

Tucson’s top two productions of the beloved ballet celebrate their 25th anniversary

Tucson treasure Jenna Johnson dances her 15th Sugar Plum Fairy with Ballet Tucson.
Tucson treasure Jenna Johnson dances her 15th Sugar Plum Fairy with Ballet Tucson.

Forget silver bells this Christmas.

This is the year of the silver Nutcrackers.

Ballet Tucson and Tucson Regional Ballet are both having a silver anniversary, dancing their Nutcrackers for the 25th time.

"This is a long time!" exclaims Ballet Tucson's Mary Beth Cabana. "In the early years, we'd dance just the second act of Nutcracker. We called it Clara's Dream. We slowly built to the full-length production."

Ballet Tucson, the city's only professional ballet troupe, stages a classic Victorian version of the time-honored tale.

Over at Tucson Regional Ballet, famed for its Southwest Nutcracker set in 1880s Tucson, Linda Walker credits the ballet's longevity to the work's sheer delight.

"Many people send me emails saying, 'It's fun to watch,' or 'My children were entranced,'" Walker says. "Their families have been coming for years."

Tucson's not the only town with Nutcracker fever. The 1892 ballet by Petipa, set to glorious music by Tchaikovsky, is a holiday staple of ballet troupes all across the United States.

America's romance with the story of the young girl who goes into a magical land got its start in the dark days of World War II, in 1944, when San Francisco Ballet staged the first full American performance. But the version that caught on was Balanchine's 1954 rendition for New York City Ballet, based on his memories of the Russian productions of his childhood.

Tucson has a host of Nutcrackers (check out Ballet Rincon, Dec. 14 and 15, at Vail Theatre of the Arts, and Dancing in the Streets AZ, Dec. 30, at TCC Leo Rich) but here's the skinny on the two biggest productions.

Ballet Tucson

This troupe's Victorian Nut hews closely to the classic ballet. Choreographed by artistic director Cabana and assistant director Chieko Imada, it features velvet costumes, falling snowflakes and a particularly gorgeous snow scene. Some 100 dancers perform, from the 33 paid pro dancers to highly trained teens to adorable tiny tots.

Asked what's new about the Ballet Tucson Nutcracker after 25 years, Cabana is quick to reply.

"The dancers!" she declares. "We have new and exciting dancers—really great dancers—making their debut in big roles."

But the company also has Jenna Johnson, the luminous prima ballerina who's danced the Sugar Plum Fairy for 15 years straight, ever since the company turned pro. Johnson, who bounced back quickly after the birth of a daughter several years ago, is a graceful dancer so talented that Cabana calls her genetically gifted.

A Tucson treasure whose performances alone are worth the price of admission, Johnson will be partnered in the dazzling Grand Pas de Deux by guest artist Vasily Boldin, a Russian native who trained in St. Petersburg.

Two other top ballerinas, Megan Steffens and Laura Lunde, alternate with Johnson on Sugar Plum. Mauricio Vergara switches with Boldin as the Cavalier.

Cabana thinks so highly of newcomer Shannon Quirk, recently recruited from Madison Ballet in Wisconsin, that she awarded Quirk the other showcase female role, Snow Queen, in her first season with the troupe. Quirk alternates with longtime company member Taylor Johnson.

Another new member, Isaac Hawkersmith, a five-year veteran of Carolina Ballet, will dance Snow King.

Kaitaro Kodama, fresh from Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, dances the titular role of Nutcracker. Jake Howard, who came to the troupe from Ballet Austin, will play the Mouse King and Spanish Chocolate. Tim Kolman, formerly of Rochester City Ballet, dances Trepak, the show-stopping Russian dance.

Clara, who gets the story rolling when she's given a Nutcracker doll by the mysterious Drosselmeyer, is played by a "home-grown prodigy," 16-year-old Sierra Bogner. Dancing Clara for the second time, Bogner switches off with Abigail Lee, who's making her Clara debut. Both young dancers have trained in the Ballet Arts school since they were little kids.

The company has performed the ballet close to Christmas in recent years, but Cabana said the whole troupe is happy with the earlier slot.

"We get to really celebrate Christmas this year," she says.

Tucson Regional Ballet

This troupe's charming Southwest Nutcracker recreates the Old Pueblo in its early days. Blue-suited cavalry supplant the old-world soldiers of the original, coyotes replace the mice and Clara's European mansion home metamorphoses into a hacienda. And Clara herself is turned into Maria; Drosselmeyer becomes Tío Diego.

The production also boasts live music: Tucson Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Lawrence Golan, plays Tchaikovsky's beloved score live.

"It makes the artistry complete," the company's Linda Walker says.

The dancers range from highly trained teens in the senior company to cute little beginners—83 dancers are in the show—but three guest artists, two from UA Dance, take on some major roles. Gregory Taylor, who played Nutcracker last year, takes on Caballero, counterpart of Cavalier. Taylor danced for five years with Charlotte Ballet before enrolling at the UA.

"He's one of the UA's very best dancers," Walker says.

UA dancer JaVonte' Carney, who trained in Tennessee and Spain, makes his first appearance with Tucson Regional, playing the Gambler Doll and Tumbleweed–analogue of the Russian Trepak.

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