Sweet 'Nutcracker'

Are you ready for some 'Nutcracker'?

Tucson's two premiere contenders in the annual Nutcracker sweepstakes have upped the ante more than ever this year.

Both Ballet Tucson and Tucson Regional Ballet will dance to live music, with flesh-and-blood orchestras playing Tchaikovsky's beloved music. Live singers will warble the "ah-ah-ahs" in both sets of Snow Scenes.

Guest stars from American Ballet Theater in New York will do the grand pas de deux in both productions, and Ballet Tucson, gone pro this year, will field a team of its own paid dancers to match its stars. And both productions, loaded with plenty of local kids, are in big concert halls with big proscenium-size sets.

"It's so exciting," says Linda Walker, artistic director of Tucson Regional. Walker's A Southwest Nutcracker is a charming transmutation of the European story to the American Southwest, with mice giving way to coyotes, toy soldiers becoming cavalrymen and the Sugar Plum Fairy turning Prickly Pear. Between the two ABT guest stars, the teen members of her senior and junior companies, and dozens of kids, some 90 dancers are taking to the stage at the TCC Music Hall, accompanied by musicians from Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

"We're going big-time!" echoes Mary-Beth Cabana, artistic director of Ballet Tucson. "The biggest thing with us is that we're a professional company this year. We've been working toward this for two decades."

The concert will be danced by some 150 dancers, a mix of the two guest stars, the 12 paid company dancers who started work this fall, and scores of advanced students and children. Cabana's Nutcracker is a traditional Victorian interpretation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story of the little girl and her toy nutcracker, complete with velvet costumes in jewel colors and falling snow. The musicians who usually play for Arizona Opera will do The Nutcracker honors at Centennial Hall, led by conductor Cal Kellogg, who once conducted for Balanchine. The Tucson Boys Chorus deploys a team of singers for the Snow Scene.

The two companies dance on successive weekends, with A Southwest Nutcracker up first, at TCC's Music Hall this weekend, and Ballet Tucson's Nutcracker next weekend at Centennial Hall. The following weekend, Tucson's final Nutcracker features the students of Kandis Meinel's Creative Dance Arts studio.

South of town, Sahuarita's Ballet Continental performs a traditional version this weekend. Up north, Ballet Arizona is staying put in the Valley of the Sun, with no Tucson dates planned. But the company, accompanied by the Phoenix Symphony, will do its longest run ever, spread over four weeks, giving Tucsonans plenty of time to make the drive up Interstate 10.

Details of this cornucopia of Nutcrackers are below.

Weekend One, Dec. 3-5

Tucson Regional Ballet, for the second year in a row, has hired "a good chunk" of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra to play Tchaikovsky's 1892 score for its Southwest Nutcracker, Walker says. For the first time, nearly 20 singers from the Tucson Desert Harmony Chorus, all women dressed in white robes, provide the "finishing touch" by singing in the Snow Scene.

Guest stars Renata Pavam and Jeffrey Golladay of ABT will fly in from New York to undertake the parts of the Prickly Pear Fairy and her Caballero, the role elsewhere known as the Prince.

"They're exquisite dancers, seasoned professionals and nice, nice people who've been nice to our kids," Walker says. Golladay also plays the Gunslinger, a cowboy variant on the dolls in the Act I party scene. Brittany DeGrofft, a 14-year-old Sahuaro High School student who studied at ABT last summer, dances Maria, a Mexican version of the Nutcracker's usual Clara.

"How beautiful this girl is," Walker exclaims. "ABT is paying her tuition with us this year, with the promise that she'll go to ABT next summer." Samuel Greenberg, a 16-year-old who's also worked with Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, partners DeGrofft as the Nutcracker.

"When the two of them dance together, people's jaws just drop. They're all legs and extensions and gorgeous arms."

Co-artistic director Gary McKenzie enacts Tío Diego, a Hispanic Drosselmeyer dressed as Zorro.

A brand-new 3-D Christmas tree will grow tall enough to fit the higher stage at the TCC Music Hall. The switch from the little theater of Leo Rich, the troupe's longtime venue, to the much-larger Music Hall also required some tinkering with the old sets. Artist Elena Henry painted the additions in the style pioneered by their original designer, the late Susan Veenema.

"We were always in Leo Rich, but we sold out so many performances, there weren't even tickets available at the door," Walker says. "It's so popular that people come in from Phoenix and New Mexico."

Curtain for Tucson Regional Ballet's A Southwest Nutcracker is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 at the TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets cost $30 adults, $20 for students, children, seniors and groups. Call the TCC box office at 321-1000.

Ballet Arizona spreads 27 performances of The Nutcracker with the Phoenix Symphony over four weeks, beginning this weekend. Restaged several years ago by company artistic director Ib Andersen, the production stars the professionals of the state's official ballet troupe along with some 100 local children. The shows begin this weekend, and continue through Sunday, Dec. 26, at the Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St., in Phoenix. There's no concert Christmas Day. Tickets cost $12 to $82 at www.ticketmaster.com or 1-888-3BALLET, and www.balletaz.org.

Ballet Continental features 75 dancers, 31 of them company members, in its 19th Nutcracker, choreographed by artistic director Lisa Baker DiGioacomo. Dancing amid traditional sets designed by Mike Cain, the troupe includes Lindsey Cain and Brittani Johnson alternating the part of Clara. Shows are at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 3 and Saturday, Dec. 4, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 at Sahuarita Auditorium, 1nterstate 19 and Sahuarita Road. Tickets cost $10 general, $8 age 55 and older, $5 students with ID and children ages 12 and under. Info may be had at 326-7887.

At Ballet Tucson's Sugar Plum Tea, at 11 a.m. and 3 and 7 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5 at the Arizona Inn, guests partake of high tea and live entertainment, including hometown girl Linda Ronstadt singing holiday favorites, with a little help from members of the Tucson Boys Chorus. Reservations go for $75 at 903-1445.

Weekend Two, Dec. 10-12

Ballet Tucson brings back Amanda McKerrow of ABT and John Gardner, a guest star and former regular with ABT and Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Projects, to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. Last seen in town on Halloween weekend, when the pair danced leads in Giselle Act II, the stars will dance three out of the four shows.

The Saturday-night slot will go to the company's own principals, Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup, the new dancers who memorably played Dracula and his victim at that same Halloween show.

The rest of the parts are interspersed among the 11 paid dancers now in the company and advanced students in the troupe's Ballet Arts school, artistic director Cabana says. "Some of the main roles are being shared by the pros and by the kids primed for professional careers. The student dancers are energized by the professionals, and they can hold their own with them."

Three young teens who have been working their way up the ranks--Veronica Garcia, Amanda Ferguson and Winnie Berger--play Clara, and Clayton Frey, another longtime Ballet Arts student, takes on the Mouse King. Professional Meredith Dulaney dances the Snow Queen, alternating with students Megan Terry and Celina Ginn.

Cabana says she's made a few tweaks to the Victorian-style set and added some new masks and a few new costumes. She's even more excited to have a "live orchestra, finally," and also live singers from the Tucson Boys Chorus.

"When I danced professionally, we always had a live chorus for the Snow Scene. It adds a lot of atmosphere. This year it's the crowning jewel on our Nutcracker."

Ballet Tucson's The Nutcracker is at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 10, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12 at the UA's Centennial Hall. Tickets cost $25-$45 general; $22-$34 for students, children, seniors and groups. Order them at 621-3341 or, for group sales. 903-1445.

Weekend Three, Dec. 17-18

Kandis Meinel's Nutcracker is the season finale. Now going into her fifth production, Meinel says she has added new scenes each year. This time around, the only omission is the Act I battle scene with the mice. Danced by a cast of 50 locals, mostly from her Creative Dance Arts studio, the show stars high school junior Rebekah Martin as the Sugar Plum Fairy for the second year. Longtime Tucson dance favorite Richard France, former director of France Academy of Dance, makes a swashbuckling Drosselmeyer. After intermission, students will perform short pieces of jazz, modern and theater dance.

Creative Dance Arts opens The Nutcracker at 6:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17, and 1 and 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18 at the UA's Stevie Eller Theatre. Tickets cost $16 and are available at the studio, 5741 N. Oracle Road, north of River Road. The phone number is 887-5658.

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