The Nutcracking Continues

Ballet Tucson's large holiday production and Dancing in the Streets' local celebrity-filled version hit the stage

Four weeks into Nutcracker season, Tucson still has two productions to go. And they're scheduled all weekend long, so true fans of the Christmas ballet—fondly known at Nutters—can go to both.

Ballet Tucson is dancing five shows at Centennial Hall Friday night through late Sunday afternoon. Dancing in the Streets Arizona is over at the Fox Theatre, dancing two shows, one on Saturday night and an afternoon matinee Sunday.

At 125 dancers strong, Ballet Tucson's Nutcracker is one of the biggest of the eight productions that have strutted on local stages in the last month. And apart from the Moscow Ballet touring company that hit the Fox earlier this week, Ballet Tucson is the only one that uses professional dancers.

"This is our ninth professional season," artistic director Mary Beth Cabana says proudly. The 30 paid members of the troupe share the stage with dozens of little mice and angels from the Ballet Arts school, along with the studio's advanced teen dancers.

The company's traditional Victorian version—all velvets and glitter and falling snow—showcases a host of company stars, including the strong and lovely Jenna Johnson as the Sugar Plum Fairy. She's partnered with Stuart Lauer as the Cavalier. Moved up from the ranks in the last year to become the troupe's male lead, Lauer is a powerful dancer who easily convinces in romantic roles.

Hadley Jalbert and Akari Manabe alternate the rigorous solo part of the Snow Queen. Benjamin Tucker is the Snow King. Cabana's choreography for "Snow," the dance that introduces the young Clara to a magical world, is gorgeous. Besides the challenging solos and duets for the queen and king, it deftly moves a stage full of young women—dancing as snowflakes—through intricate overlapping patterns.

Ballet Tucson regulars will spot a much-taller Elias Frantziskonis taking on principal roles this time around. Now a teenager, Frantziskonis grew up in the company. This year, at 5-foot-9, he'll do some challenging grown-up parts, including the Harlequin Doll and the Chinese Ribbon Dancer.

"He's a bright light on the horizon," Cabana says.

Even in a tight economy, the company has managed to refurbish some costumes, including the dresses for the "Waltz of the Flowers" dancers and the white suit of the young Nutcracker Prince.

The music is taped, because money that would otherwise go to pay orchestra musicians goes instead to the pro dancers.

Cabana would prefer live music but, given the choice, she'd rather spend the money on top-notch dancing.

"I'm preserving jobs," she says.

The Nutcracker Ballet—El Cascanueces, staged by Dancing in the Streets Arizona, has grown rapidly since its first outing in 2008. That year, says Soleste Lupu, the company's co-founder and co-artistic director, just 40 students from the southside studio ventured onstage.

This year, in its fifth Nutcracker, "we have about 130 students, ages 3 to 23."

Two of those young students, Kaila Stoglin and Karen Garcia, alternate as Clara.

And that number doesn't count the grown-up guest artists who take on the plum roles of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, or the local celebrities who play the adults in the party scene in Act 1.

"We rewrote the storyline slightly," Lupu says. "Clara's parents are diplomats, and their guests represent mythical countries around the world." The switch allows for some wildly colorful costumes.

At the party, Tucson's mayor, Jonathan Rothschild, "plays the mayor," Lupu says with a chuckle. And his wife, Karen, plays the mayor's wife.

Arizona Daily Star cartoonist and comedian David Fitzsimmons dances at the party, and "he'll do a surprise at the beginning," Lupu promises.

Local dance legend Thom Lewis, too little seen on Tucson stages lately, also dances in the party scene. Now an administrator and dance teacher in TUSD's Opening Minds Through the Arts program, Lewis is a volunteer teacher at the Dancing in the Streets school.

"He's great with the kids," Lupu says.

Emily Rodgers, daughter of company co-founder and co-artistic director Joseph Rodgers, guest-stars once again as the Sugar Plum Fairy. A new dance graduate of Point Park University in Pittsburgh, Emily Rodgers arrives in town fresh from performing in a Nutcracker in Virginia.

Her Cavalier will be danced by Mariano Albano, now back in his hometown of Phoenix after dancing with the Louisville Ballet.

Joseph Rodgers takes on Drosselmeyer, the magician who weaves the Nutcracker spell. A native Tucsonan, Rodgers had a long dance career out of town, dancing with the Milwaukee Ballet, Ballet Chicago, Feld Ballet and others. He came back home and, with his wife, Lupu, founded the studio on Tucson's southside in hopes of reaching kids who would never have thought of ballet otherwise.

Rodgers is the primary choreographer, but Corinne Hobson, a NEW ART dancer in Tucson, contributed the Spanish number. Like Lewis, Hobson volunteers at the school, teaching modern dance to the ballet students.

Despite its bilingual title, the production is a classical Victorian rendition of the story, Lupu says. The name (El Cascanueces means "nutcracker" in Spanish) "speaks of the diversity of our students."

Dancing in the Streets has been fortunate to enlist the volunteer services of the musicians of the Civic Orchestra of Tucson, who will play the Tchaikovsky score live.

Other treats, Lupu says, include the standard snowfall on stage and the Christmas tree that grows.

And, she adds, "we have some surprise cannon stuff."

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