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'Nutcracker' Showdown!

While locals can see this classic every weekend before Christmas, the two big productions are going head to head

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Tucson's two biggest Nutcracker productions will go toe to toe this year on the same weekend.

"It's a shame it has to happen this way," says Mary-Beth Cabana, artistic director of Ballet Tucson. "We would love to have different dates."

Her professional company will dance its traditional Victorian Nutcracker four times at Centennial Hall Dec. 7-9. Linda Walker's Tucson Regional Ballet will offer up its desert-style Southwest Nutcracker at four concerts at the Tucson Music Hall at the exact same times.

"It saddens me for the public," Walker says. "We didn't know. We plan these things way in advance, and it depends on the availability of the hall. It just happened this way."

Devoted fans of the beloved Christmas ballet could make it to both full productions if they plotted their schedules carefully. Alternatively, they could drive up to Catalina to see Ballet Tucson dancing just Act II this weekend at SaddleBrooke's theater. Several other smaller troupes and studios will stage their Nuts on other weekends, but none of those will feature live music or professional dancers, as these two do. (Ballet Arizona in Phoenix enlists the Phoenix Symphony for its Nut.)

Ballet Tucson is the Old Pueblo's only fully professional dance troupe. A cohort of some 20 paid dancers will pirouette their way through the tale of a little girl awakening on Christmas Eve to a dream of dancing sweets.

"There's room for everybody, but we are Tucson's professional ballet company," Cabana says. The troupe has been around for 22 years in one form or another, but it's in its fourth season as a fully pro company.

Ballet Arts, the school associated with the company, rounds out the huge cast of 135 with advanced teen dancers performing the lovely Snow Scene, middle schoolers turning out Chinese steps and cute tykes dressed as angels and gingerbread cookies tiptoeing across the stage.

This production is classical Victorian, with charming period costumes in rich holiday velvets. In the opening scene, snow tumbles down on a street scene that could be straight out of London.

Jenna Johnson and Daniel Precup, the troupe's stars, dance the leads of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, in choreography composed mostly by Cabana. The Snow King and Queen are triple-cast; alternating among the pairs are Stuart Lauer and Meredith Dulaney ("They're emerging as a prominent couple," Cabana says), Daniel Escudero and Aurora Frey, and Isaac Sharratt and Erica Alvarado.

"We're excited about our Claras"--Lydia Pettit and Jahna Frantziskonis. "They're really serious students, but smaller and younger than the dancers we usually use."

The Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus sings during the Snow Scene. Conductor Brian Asher Alhadeff, who most recently conducted for the Tulsa Ballet, leads a group of 42 musicians from Phoenix and Tucson, many of whom also play for Arizona Opera.

"We have first-rate musicians," Cabana says. "I'm proud of that. They return year after year."

In a counterpoint to the Ballet Tucson production, Tucson Regional Ballet transforms the original Germanic tale into a set piece out of 1880s Tucson. Southwest cavalry officers, Copper Queens and Indian maidens replace the usual European characters. The company this year imports four guest dancers to complement the work of its advanced teens.

Chidozie Nzerem, who's worked a number of years with San Francisco Ballet, returns to reprise last year's dazzling turn as the Caballero, counterpart to the traditional Cavalier. He'll partner with the troupe's own Brittany DeGrofft, who dances the Prickly Pear Fairy, elsewhere known as the Sugar Plum. Gifted high schooler DeGrofft dances every summer with American Ballet Theatre in New York.

"She's exquisite," Walker says. "She glows on stage."

The troupe has also enlisted "three wonderful young men" from the UA School of Dance. Hseth Burch, a gymnast and champion jump-roper, will repeat last year's show-stealing dance of the Tumbleweed, a replacement for the standard Russian dance.

Jesse Campbell will dance Tío Diego, the Southwestern stand-in for Drosselmeyer. Normally the mysterious magician is more actor than dancer, but with Campbell's skills, "We turned Diego into a dancing role. Does he use the stage!" Walker exults. The UA's Bryon Wong will dance the Nutcracker.

Sabino High student Paetia Mechler, last year's Maria--the Mexican counterpart to Clara--returns as the Snow Queen, after studying last summer at Boston Ballet. Solana Temple, a student at University High, and Nicole Surran, of Sabino High, alternate as Maria.

Members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra play once again for A Southwest Nutcracker.

"We'll have 38 or 40 musicians," Walker says. The ballet dancers will be on the stage, and "the pit's not large enough for the full orchestra."

A children's chorus led by Libby Howell does the singing.

Both companies continually tweak their Nutcrackers, updating costumes, re-doing sets and refining the choreography. A Southwest Nutcracker this year will have a giant new Christmas tree. The old tree was big enough to fill Leo Rich, where the company used to perform. But it was too small for the Music Hall.

"It was 13 feet at the base," Walker reports. "The new one is 25 feet. It's so big, the top disappears when it grows."

Here's a complete list of concerts for the devoted Nut-o-maniac.


WEEKEND ONE, NOV. 30-DEC. 1.

Ballet Tucson gives a sneak preview of its professional Nutcracker at the Desert View Performing Arts Center in SaddleBrooke, in Catalina. Presenting just the fantasy second act, "Clara's Dream: In the Kingdom of the Sweets," the troupe will also reprise Les Patineurs, the charming Victorian ice-skating dance that was a highlight of the season opener. Music is taped. Curtain is at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Nov. 30. Tickets cost $35 in advance, $40 at door. SaddleBrooke, 63395 E. Flower Ridge Drive, Catalina, 818-1000.

In the opposite direction, down south in Sahuarita, Ballet Continental presents its full traditional Nutcracker, now in its 22nd year. The troupe's principal dancers, Darby Downs, Rebecca Weis and Brittani Johnson, rotate the role of Sugar Plum. Tucsonan Nicholas McLain guests as the Cavalier. The 23 company members are teenagers and young adults, says artistic director Lisa Baker DiGiacomo. The younger kids primarily hail from the Young Artists Community Ballet Academy of Dance. Shows are at 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 30, and Saturday, Dec. 1; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 2, at Sahuarita Auditorium on the high school campus, 350 W. Sahuarita Road; go left from the Sahuarita exit of Interstate 19. Advance tickets cost $13 general, $10 seniors, $6 students and kids 12 and younger; $2 more at the door. 326-7887. Advance tickets are available in Tucson at Camille's in Casas Adobes Plaza (Ina and Oracle roads), 322-9163, and at Jazz Skins, 4826 E. Broadway Blvd., 325-2662.

On Sunday, Ballet Tucson stages its annual Sugar Plum Tea fundraiser. There's no dancing, but dancers turn up in costume. Susan Claassen of Invisible Theatre reads aloud from the original Nutcracker story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. The Tucson Boys Chorus sings seasonal choral music to live harp music by Christine Vivona. At an adult soirée, TSO violinist Benjamin Nisbet plays solo. Seatings for the family-oriented high tea are at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.; adult soirée with a cash bar is at 7 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 3, at the Arizona Inn, 2200 E. Elm St. $75 for the tea; $100 for the soirée. 903-1445.


WEEKEND TWO, DEC. 7-9

Ballet Tucson presents The Nutcracker, a traditional production to live music performed by the Ballet Tucson Orchestra; the Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus sings. The troupe's pro dancers are rounded out by students from Ballet Arts school. 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 7; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 8; 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9. Centennial Hall, UA campus. $27 to $47 general; $23 to $35 students, seniors and groups. Box office: 621-3341. For more info, call 903-1445.

Tucson Regional Ballet stages A Southwest Nutcracker, set in 1880s Tucson, to live music played by members of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra. A children's chorus sings. Guest stars join teen troupe members and students from the Academy of Ballet. 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 7; 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 8; 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 9, at the Tucson Music Hall, 260 S. Church Ave. Tickets cost $33 adults; $21 children, students and seniors, available through the ballet at 885-0862 or the ballet's Web site; or through Ticketmaster, online or 321-1000.

Ballet Arizona's Ib Andersen debuted his Nutcracker in Phoenix last year. Opening with a virtual-reality ride, the razzle-dazzle production has the most sumptuous Nut set in Arizona and sterling performances by ballerinas who Andersen has collected from all over the world. The Phoenix Symphony plays live. Two dozen performances are at various times, Friday, Dec. 7, through Thursday, Dec. 27, at the Phoenix Symphony Hall, 225 E. Adams St., Phoenix, (602) 262-7272. Tickets cost $15 to $115; (602) 381-1096; (888) 3BALLET; or at Ticketmaster's Web site.


WEEKEND THREE, DEC. 13-16

Dance Magnificat borrows a platoon of male dancers from the UA's School of Dance to supplement the students at its studio, run by artistic director Kandis Meinel. College dancers Joshua Carter, Zachary Heller, Nathan Cottam, Michael Gross, Nicholas Torres and Colby Foss dance Nutcracker Prince, Snow King, Mouse King, Cavalier and the Spanish solo. Teachers Meghan Lloyd and Sarah Fisher alternate the Snow Queen, and Fisher is Sugar Plum Fairy. 6 p.m., Thursday and Friday, Dec. 13 and 14; noon and 4 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 16, at the Pima Center for the Arts Proscenium Theater, 2202 W. Anklam Road. $15 to $20. Tickets are at the box office, 206-6986, or studio, 887-5658.


WEEKEND FOUR, DEC. 21-22

A Time to Dance Youth Ballet gets the enviable weekend-before-Christmas slot. An intergenerational mix of dancers, age 3 to 70, performs a full Nutcracker, choreographed by artistic director DeeDee Doell. Katie Enright is Sugar Plum; Dana McCommons is the Cavalier; Jerrica Stewart is Clara; and Doell dances Drosselmeyer. 7:30 p.m., Friday, Dec. 21, and 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 22, at the Berger Performing Arts Center at the Arizona Schools for the Deaf and Blind, 1200 W. Speedway Blvd. $10 at door, $7.50 in advance at 320-1566.

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