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That Christmas Classic

This December brings nine 'Nutcracker' performances worth your consideration

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Ballet critic Alastair Macaulay of The New York Times is slogging across the country at this exact moment, trying to see as many Nutcrackers as possible.

Alas, he has no plans to visit Tucson, but he's already given a nod to the city's most prominent productions. On Nov. 23, he wrote an Old Pueblo post titled "Where the Coyotes Dance and the Bats Roam" on his Nutcracker Chronicles blog (nytimes.com/artsbeat).

"Among those I can't see (this year at any rate)," he wrote, "there is ... one by the Tucson Regional Ballet (not to be confused with the Ballet Tucson) that features 'a battle between coyotes and the U.S. Cavalry, a journey over the glistening, falling snow of Mt. Lemmon to a Desert Dream of Chili Peppers, Mama Piñata and the waltzing Desert Poppies.' Need I say that the tourist in me wishes desperately I could catch these?"

If Macaulay spent his entire Nutcracker month in Tucson and environs, he could see no fewer than nine productions.

Tucson Regional Ballet kicks off the mania this weekend with its popular cactus-studded A Southwest Nutcracker. Ballet Tucson, the city's only professional ballet company, brings the month to a close with its traditional Victorian version wrapped right around Christmas itself. In between are a variety of charmers, many of them performed by studios for children and teens, and given an assist from guest artists.

The Nutcracker has wholly European origins: The 1816 story is by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann; the 1892 choreography is by Franco-Russian Marius Petipa; the score is by the Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In pondering how an Old World ballet turned into an American institution, Macaulay suggests that America's love affair with The Nutcracker tells us something about our ideal of ourselves as a nation of immigrants—an ideal lately tarnished.

"(I)t still matters to many Americans that this nation ... embraces newcomers," Macaulay wrote on Nov. 14. "When the Nutcracker heroine arrives in the paradise-like Land of Sweets, she is at once made welcome. The Sugar Plum Fairy presides with her wand in ways not unlike the Statue of Liberty with her torch in New York Harbor. You have traveled far; here, in this land of milk and honey, find rest and delight. Here people of different races are equal; here you may make a new start."

With that generous view of America in mind, herewith is a round-robin of Arizona Nutcrackers.

WEEK ONE

Ballet Continental in Sahuarita is first up, with its opener Friday night. Now in its 25th season, the company stages its classic Nutcracker Ballet production with 60 dancers. Julia Bacchus and Allie St. Paul alternate the pivotal role of Clara. Guest artists Nicholas McLain, Sam Gay, Josh Gay and Kendall Fox dance the male leads. Artistic director Lisa Baker DiGiacomo gets choreography credit. Music is recorded.

Shows are 7 p.m., Friday, Dec. 3, and Saturday, Dec. 4; and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5, at Sahuarita Auditorium, 350 W. Sahuarita Road, just off Interstate 10. Advance tickets are $15 general; $12 seniors; and $8 students and children younger than 12, available at Young Artists' Community Ballet Academy of Dance, 1100 White House Canyon Road; 326-7887.

The 17th edition of Tucson Regional Ballet's A Southwest Nutcracker debuts Saturday. "I presented the idea of setting it in 19th-century Tucson to our artistic director of the time in 1994," says managing director Linda Walker. "She was dubious at first. Then it flew!"

Two Ballet Arizona stars, Paola Hartley and Roman Zavarov, take on the lead roles of Prickly Pear Fairy and Caballero. Wade Walthall, once a dancer with Northwest Pacific Ballet, is the Zorro-like Tío Diego, counterpart to Drosselmeyer. A student, Hseth Berch, takes on his usual show-stopping role of Tumbleweed. UA dance grad Jesse Campbell is the Nutcracker. Besides the five guest artists, some 85 teen and tot dancers fill the stage as Native American princesses, copper queens and coyotes. Lindsey Felix, 15, is Maria, the Southwest version of Clara.

New artistic director Jeffrey Graham Hughes, formerly of Ballet Tucson, injected some of his own choreography. "He's great to work with," Walker says. "He has wonderful ideas to present."

Tucson Symphony Orchestra performs live. Curtain is at 2 and 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 4, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 5, at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave.; 791-4101. Tickets are $23 to $35 through www.tucsonregionalballet.org or 885-0862; at the TCC box office (791-4101); or with extra fees at www.ticketmaster.com or (800) 745-3000.

WEEK TWO

Up in Phoenix, Ballet Arizona opens its elaborate professional production on Friday night and continues clear through Dec. 26, with only a few days off. Choreographed by artistic director Ib Andersen, this Nutcracker made its lavish premiere five years ago. This lovely big-city production features an international cast, live music by the Phoenix Symphony—and big-city prices. The concerts are at Symphony Hall, 75 N. Second St., Phoenix. Tickets range from $17 to $121, plus assorted fees. Available at the box office, (602) 381-1096; www.balletaz.org; or www.ticketmaster.com.

WEEK THREE

A Time to Dance Youth Ballet boasts that all of its dancers, ranging in age from 4 to 50-plus, train at the studio; no guest stars are imported. Marisa Hetland is Clara; the previous Clara, Jerrica Stewart, moves up to the Sugar Plum Faerie. Artistic director DeeDee Doell dances Drosselmeyer. Concerts are at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 17, and 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 18, at Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. Tickets are $8 in advance by calling 272-3400; $2 more at the door.

Arizona Dance Theatre, formerly known as Creative Dance Arts, deploys 60 dancers from its foothills studio. Directed by Kandis Meinel, this Nutcracker has three UA Dance majors as guest stars: Adam Moss portrays Drosselmeyer and the Cavalier; Bart Cowperthwaite is the Nutcracker Prince; and Caitlin Swartz dances the Sugar Plum Fairy. Teens Miranda Rico and Cassie Everly alternate as Clara.

Show times are 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 17, and 2:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 18 and 19, at Pima Community College West's Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $25 adults; and $15 ages 10 and younger, available at the studio at 5741 N. Oracle Road, 887-5658; or at the PCC box office, 206-6986.

Artistic director Jennifer Neuser has been operating Ballet Rincon out of a studio in Civano for 10 years. This year, she moves her traditional Nutcracker from Santa Rita High to the sleek new Vail Theatre of the Arts. "It's a beautiful auditorium, state-of-the-art," she says.

UA dancer Mark Nichols stars as the Nutcracker Prince, but the rest of the performers "are homegrown, a complete student corps." Hanna Herrington, 15, is Clara. Brianna McLaughlin and Janae Toone alternate as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Instructor Erika Colombi choreographed much of the ballet; Lee Anne Hartley, artistic director of FUNHOUSE movement theater, gives a modern twist to the Act 1 battle of the mice and soldiers. Music is recorded.

Curtain rises at 7 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 18, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 19, at Vail Theatre of the Arts, 10701 E. Mary Ann Cleveland Way, on the campus of Empire High School, two miles north of Houghton and Interstate 10; 879-3925. Reserved seats are $10 and $14 for adults; $8 and $12 for children to 11; and seniors 55 and up. Contact the ballet at 574-2804.

WEEK FOUR

The Russians are coming for the second year running to the Fox Tucson Theatre. The Moscow Ballet performs two shows of the Great Russian Nutcracker back-to-back in one day; keep in mind that the dancers arrive here near the end of a grueling two-month West Coast tour, during which they perform nearly every day. Vladimir Troschenko directs; some local children auditioned to join the Russians on stage. Life-sized dancing puppets also join the action. Show times are 4 and 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 21, at 17 W. Congress St., 547-3040; www.foxtucsontheatre.org. Tickets range from $27.50 to $67.50. Music is recorded.

The only professional company in Tucson, Ballet Tucson puts on a lovely traditional Nutcracker. Last year, the production moved from its longtime home at UA Centennial Hall to the TCC Music Hall, and switched from early December to the days right around Christmas. "It went very well," says artistic director Mary Beth Cabana. "People are looking for something to do right over Christmas. We had strong attendance."

The poor economy has forced one cutback this year: Ballet Tucson made the decision to forgo live music for this year's show, in order to avoid layoffs of its paid dancers.

"We had two possibilities: go without the orchestra for The Nutcracker, or maintain the size of the company," Cabana says. "It's a disappointment, but I want to maintain the integrity of the company. Dancing is my primary concern."

Those dancers whose jobs were saved—many of them new to the troupe this year—are the principal attraction, along with the elaborate sets, costumes and falling snow. Stars Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup alternate Sugar Plum and Cavalier with Megan Terry and Stuart Lauer. Four dancers take on Clara: Kaylene Garcia, Chandi McCright, Kendra Clyde and Sierra Sebastian. Young Elias Frantziskonis moves up to play the Nutcracker Prince.

Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 23; 3 p.m., Friday, Dec. 24; and 1 and 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 26, at TCC Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets are $25 to $52 general; $20 to $42 students, children and seniors; and $15 to $25 for groups of 10 or more, available at the TCC box office; 791-4101. Tickets through ticketmaster.com or (800) 745-3000 carry a hefty surcharge.

Dancing in the Streets, a plucky southside children's ballet studio (motto: "Changing minds and changing lives—one jeté at a time"), puts on its third Baile de los Cascanueces. Emily Rodgers, a dance major at Point Park University in Pennsylvania, reprises her guest turn as Sugar Plum Fairy. Otherwise, 140 students from the school, including 20 advanced teens, dance the traditional story. Co-artistic director Joseph Rodgers, a Tucson native who returned home after a successful ballet career, choreographs. The Civic Orchestra of Tucson provides live music.

Show times are 1 and 6 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 26, at Pima Community College West Proscenium Theatre, 2202 W. Anklam Road. Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the door; 206-6986.

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