Two Cities, One Gift

Ballet Tucson and Tucson Regional Ballet serve up The Nutcracker two ways this weekend

This weekend, Tucson's two biggest Nutcracker productions go toe to toe.

First up is the traditional Victorian version by Ballet Tucson, the city's only professional ballet company. Now celebrating its 30th anniversary, the company is performing its 22nd full-length Nutcracker.

What that means is that 32 professional dancers and scores of children and teens will dance the familiar tale of the little girl at a magical Christmas party and her journey into the Land of Sweets. Not to mention the falling snow, dancing candies, marching toy soldiers, velvet-rich costumes and the beloved score by Tchaikovsky.

"It's a ritual," artistic director Mary Beth Cabana says. "I've been doing it myself since I was just a kid, then [as] a professional dancer, now as a director. For the audience, it's part of the fabric of the holiday season."

Ballet Tucson's rendition, which this year won "Best Dance Performance" in the Weekly's Best of Tucson contest, hews closely to the original ballet. First staged in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, by the renowned choreographer Petipa, The Nutcracker brought to life an 1816 story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The great Russian choreographer George Balanchine introduced the ballet at the New York City Ballet in 1954, and it's since evolved into a beloved rite of the American holiday season.

Nearly every ballet company in the U.S. performs it each December, and each one puts its own stamp on it. Cabana created Ballet Tucson's initial Nutcracker choreography, and assistant artistic director Chieko Imada has added variations over the years.

This time around, Daniel Precup, the company's balletmaster and former principal dancer, has switched in new choreography in Act II. He's also ratcheted up the leaps for the Cavalier in the Grand Pas variations, Cabana says, to take advantage of Isaiah Sumler's talents for jumping.

Prima ballerina Jenna Johnson will partner with Sumler in the primo part of Sugar Plum Fairy at both Saturday shows, but Cabana says that the company now has so many ready-for-primetime dancers, that she's spreading the top parts around. Megan Steffens, an up-and-coming ballerina recruited from California a season ago, will dance Sugar Plum on Friday and Sunday. Connolly Strombeck will dance Cavalier those days.

Another ballerina to watch is Taylor Johnson in the sensuous Arabian dance. "She's been with us five years," Cabana said. "She joined at 18 as an apprentice and she's working into leading roles."

Sierra Sebastian, an apprentice dancer who'll dance multiple parts, started at Cabana's school. Ballet Arts, at age 7. As a child she played Clara, and now she's turned pro. This year, she's a Snowflake in the complex choreography of the Snow Scene, a soloist in Spanish as a Candy Flower and an understudy for Columbine.

"She's moved all the way through the ranks," Cabana says.

Over at the Tucson Music Hall, though, something a little different is in store for this classic Christmas tale. Tucson Regional Ballet's charming Southwest Nutcracker transposes the traditional European setting to 1880s Tucson.

The Sugar Plum Fairy metamorphoses into the Prickly Pear Fairy, the soldier mice are replaced by coyotes and the little girl who gets a nutcracker as a Christmas gift is no longer a German Clara—she's a Mexican Maria.

"People have been coming back to see it for many a year," says executive director Linda Walker, who created the original choreography with Carolyn Haatainen-Wallace. Now in its 21st year, "it's holding up!"

The Southwest Nutcracker has the advantage of live music, performed by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Lawrence Golan.

"Lawrence really nails those tempos," Walker says.

The orchestra, which has partnered with the ballet company for the last decade, provides about "40 musicians," she says. "They squeeze as many into the pit as they can."

Some 86 dancers perform, most of them students in Walker's Academy of Ballet, Tap and Jazz—20 are teenagers who are advanced dancers in the senior company. They're joined by four guest artists, all of them male dancers from the UA School of Dance.

The gifted Max Foster, a native Tucsonan who danced professionally in Ecuador before returning to his hometown to get a dance degree, portrays the Caballero, counterpoint to the Cavalier. Zachary Birdwell is Tío Diego, the Mexican version of the magician Drosselmeyer. Forest Berger dances the Gambler and Tumbleweed and Kevyn Butler is the Nutcracker.

"Kevyn is a year better," Walker says. "Does he look good! They're all polite young men, and they work so well with our students."

Among the company dancers, 18-year-old Cianna Sala dances the starring role of Prickly Pear Fairy. Dascha Letson, 15, and Jillian Leaver, 16, ("both gorgeous," Walker says) alternate the part of the Snow Queen. Corazón Nuñez, 15, in training since the age of 3, is Maria.

"She did all the parts growing up," Walker says. "She's lovely."

A few seasons ago, the company added a painted backdrop for Act II—the Land of the Sweets—that portrays the mesas and big skies of the West. The artist, Johanna Martinez, contributes another painting this year, a backdrop for the party scene.

"You'll see the front of the hacienda, the house," Walker says. "And you'll be able to see inside the windows and doors."

The current artistic director and associate artistic director, Jeffrey Graham Hughes and Pamela Reyman-Hughes, have tweaked some of Walker's original choreography. The Snow costumes have gotten a makeover in the form of lace overlays.

"They're sparkling," Walker said, "like embedded jewels."

So, it seems, you'll have your pick of a classic take on The Nutcracker or one with a little Old Pueblo flare.

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