From Poland to Phoenix

Late in the 19th century, Marius Petipa choreographed a confectionery story ballet on Tchaikovsky's music based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale The Nutcracker. Russian choreographer George Balanchine's version has been enchanting children and adults since 1954. Yet he is one Russian not represented in the Nutcrackers around the Valley this holiday season. Choreographers annually struggle to give Nutcracker some novelty with everything from their own choreography to skateboards. It's just as hard for dance writers to find a fresh story angle each year. Here's an angle that found me.

When I arrived in Poland in mid-September to cover the Warsaw Autumn Festival, I asked some composers if there was any dance to see. They pointed me to the Opera where a Nijinsky Gala was in midperformance. (Waslaw Nijinsky was born of Polish parents in Russia, and Poles hold a special love for him.) Having just met Nijinsky's daughter and granddaughter, Tamara and Kinga, who live here in Phoenix, I jumped at the opportunity to see his Jeux, which I've never seen live. But the box office was closed. So I went mega-diva on two adorable ushers who wouldn't let me in, and in my laughable Polish cried, "Jestem krytyka tanza, I must get in." I stuffed 20-zloty notes in their pockets to buy beer, and they sneaked me in.

Michel Fokine's Les Sylphides was over. But Jeux came next. After the finale's explosively pornographic Rites of Spring, I went backstage to meet the choreographer, Emil Wesolowski. He took me to Slawomir Wozniak, who had danced the role of Nijinsky so magnificently in Jeux and who speaks English. On hearing his pronunciation, I asked if he's been to the States. "Oh, every year I go to dance Nutcracker in some place called Phoenix."

As it happens, Michel Fokine's great-niece, Nina Marlowe, also makes her home in Phoenix. She's been producing the Petipa Nutcracker for 20 years with her nonprofit organization, Ballet & Friends. (Her grandmother, Alexandra Fedorova-Fokine, who danced with Nijinsky, produced a similar version for American Ballet Theater in the '40s.) Ms. Marlowe first brought the Warsaw Ballet star, Wozniak, here 11 years ago. This year she brings him directly from his company's engagement in Moscow. This extraordinarily danced benefit ballet is affordable -- admission is a new, unwrapped toy for the Toys for Tots campaign.

Finding a Polish import to dance The Nutcracker is just one oddity in a ballet that has as many variations as a Paganini theme. For instance, Sharon Seder Meko choreographed her own Nutcracker, danced by her Mesa-based company, Ballet Etudes', students for 14 years. She brings in former Ballet West principals Raymond Van Mason to dance several roles and Robbin Holley-Elowe as Sugar Plum Fairy. (This Nutcracker will be performed December 1-3 at Chandler Center for the Arts. Call 480-782-2680 or Ticketmaster at 480-784-4444.)

So what are the descendants of two of the most famous names in dance history doing in the desert? Well, at least one is doing The Nutcracker. And the Nijinsky family, based in Phoenix, works to keep his memory alive around the world.

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Merilyn Jackson