Visions Of Sugar Plums

'The Nutcracker' Comes To Life On Local Stages.

WHILE THERE'S STILL time to catch Riverdance at Centennial Hall this weekend -- the foot-stomping, razzle-dazzle Irish troupe performs through Sunday -- the Germanic tale of The Nutcracker is more visible on Tucson stages this month than anything from misty Eire.

This first weekend in December offers three, count 'em, productions of the beloved Christmas classic, based on the 19th-century tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann about a little girl's dream. The biggest Nutcracker, staged by Ballet Arizona, gives Tucsonans their first chance to scrutinize the state ballet company after its summer financial crisis and the departure of both its artistic director, Michael Uthoff, and executive director, Gray Montague. Though the Phoenix season has gone on as planned, the company canceled most of its Tucson concerts, leaving only the popular -- and profitable -- Nutcracker to be staged in the Old Pueblo.

"We've been through our paces with the artistic uncertainty, " says Don Fassinger, acting general manager and director of production, who's been with the company eight years. "Despite the hubbub of the management changing, the artists and support staff are outstanding. The product we bring to the stage is still an outstanding product."

A new artistic director has yet to be chosen, and this Nutcracker still offers Uthoff's fine choreography, which he revamped two seasons ago to splendid results. In fact, Uthoff is serving as artistic advisor to the production. Most of the company's leading dancers stayed on despite the uncertainty, and performing this weekend will be Yen-Li Chen Zhang and Qisheng Zhang, Judith Adee, Gia Firicano, Andrew Needhammer and Bonnie Rich. The Tucson Symphony Orchestra will perform Tchaikovsky's score live, under the direction of its former conductor, Robert Bernhardt, back in town just for this engagement. And some 52 tots and teens from Tucson will perform the roles of the party guests and assorted bon-bons and beasts. The lovely costumes, from sparkly orange Arabian duds to gossamer white fairy tutus, will still be in evidence, and the feathered Christmas tree still boasts 3000 dyed ostrich plumes.

The company returns to TCC Music Hall at the Tucson Convention Center, 260 S. Church Ave., at 7:30 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, December 3 through 5. Storytellers will entertain kids in the lobby a half-hour before each performance, and one child ages 7 to 12 will be chosen for the role of guest soldier and get to dance onstage with the pros. Tickets are $22 to $42 for adults, $20 to $38 for seniors, and $11 to $21 for kids 12 and under. For tickets call 321-1000, or the company toll-free at 1-888-3Ballet.

The other two Nutcrackers on the boards this weekend are performed by children's troupes, with the help of some adult guest stars. Sean France, formerly of Den Norske Ballet of Oslo, Norway, the Cleveland Ballet and the Oakland Ballet, is the featured dancer in Clara's Dream, The Nutcracker, to be performed by the student dancers of the Tucson Metropolitan Dance Co. Richard France, a Broadway dance veteran, directs the troupe, which has been in Tucson 20 years. Show times are 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, December 4 and 5, at the TCC Leo Rich Theater, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $10 for adults, $5 for children 12 and under. They're available at the box office at 791-4266 or at Dillard's at 1-800-638-4253.

For the third Nutcracker, dance lovers must travel farther afield, to the Sahuarita Auditorium in Sahuarita, off I-19 and Helmet Peak Road. Ballet Continental, a children's troupe known for its staging of such ballet classics as Giselle and La Fille Mal Gardée, does the honors. Lisa Baker DiGiacomo directs the 58 dancers in this traditional production, with an adult actor and magician rounding out the cast. Show times are 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, December 4 and 5. Tickets are $10 general, $8 for seniors, $5 for students with I.D. and children 12 and under. Tickets are available at the door. For more information call 326-7887.

The Nutcracker version to be performed the second weekend in December changes the geography from Eastern Europe to the American desert. A Southwest Nutcracker, staged by Tucson Regional Ballet, is a regional delight that's quickly become a new Tucson tradition. In the hands of artistic director Linda Walker, coyotes and cacti replace rats and Christmas trees, Zorro metamorphoses out of Drosselmeyer, and a Prickly Pear Fairy supplants the Sugar Plum. Children and teens take most of the parts, but reprising the lead roles of Prickly Pear Fairy and her Caballero are Anne Derieux and Charles Newton. These professional dancers from Seattle's Pacific Northwest Ballet also danced these parts last year. Curtain is at 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, December 10 through 12 at TCC Leo Rich Theatre, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, students and children. To charge by phone call 791-4266.

The final Nutcracker is danced the weekend just before Christmas. Ballet Arts Foundation always delivers an impeccably classical concert, complete with traditional Victorian sets and snowfall. Choreographed by Mary Beth Cabana, this Nutcracker's precision reflects her young students' rigorous training. The show will be held at PCC Center for the Arts Proscenium Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Show times are 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, December 17 through 19. Tickets are $18. For information call 623-3373.

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