Visions of Sugarplums

You may have noticed some nuts around the Valley in the last weeks. No, I don't mean the election protesters. I mean The Nutcrackers. Ballet & Friends in Scottsdale and Ballet Etudes in Chandler wrapped up their wonderful productions recently. That makes two down and one to go, with the biggest, by Ballet Arizona, just revving up for its Phoenix run starting Thursday night, December 14. If you're nuts about The Nutcracker ballet, don't think me irreverent. I fall under its enchantment every year, too, although coming up with something new to say about this more-than-100-year-old story ballet year after year can be a chore.

If your parents or some doting aunt or uncle took you to see it as a child, you may remember the basic story. The 13-year-old Clara (whose name seems to have been changed from Marie by Rudolf Nureyev in his 1967 Royal Ballet production) gets a resplendent nutcracker for Christmas. She dreams it comes to life as a prince who dances with her, fights off the Mouse King, and performs other feats of derring-do. Visions of sugarplums come from the Sugarplum Fairy prancing into Clara's dream as she and the Nutcracker Prince arrive in the Kingdom of Sweets. (Just don't ask what Freud would have to say about the Christmas tree that grows taller as Clara slumbers.) All this is set to Tchaikovsky's lilting music with its pastiches of Russian, Oriental and Spanish tunes for dances in those styles.

Ballet Arizona dances the only professional Nutcracker in Arizona. Since it's a small company, each dancer must assume multiple roles. But this is typical of Nutcracker productions. In the Nureyev version, Old Drosselmeyer, who gave the Nutcracker to Clara, also dances the Mouse King and the Prince. In some of Ballet Arizona's performances, for instance, Robert Wesner, who portrays Drosselmeyer, also dances Chinese Tea and one of the Giant Mice.

The Ballet's new artistic director, Ib Anderson, kept the costumes and sets recently commissioned by his predecessor, Michael Uthoff. But he's brought in Mark Stanley, head lighting designer for NYC Ballet. "I've done away with the projections, too," he says of the video projections introduced four years ago. "I want the dance to shine through." He refers to his own new choreography, which I remark at rehearsal looks wonderfully musical. "Yes, it's very hard to make Tchaikovsky look unmusical," he says tartly, "but that is a special gift some choreographers have."

One of the special gifts Ballet Arizona's Nutcracker offers to children occurs during its storytelling session 30 minutes before each performance. A "Guest Soldier" is chosen from among the children present and outfitted to perform right then and there. So if you have a favorite niece or nephew and don't know what to get them for Christmas, what are you waiting for? Get tickets and take them. Even if you lose an election, they'll be nuts about you forever.