Mixed Nuts

Many a Valleyite's introduction to the ballet has come in the form of a yearly Ballet Arizona production--serving not only to enchant wide-eyed little girls with big ballerina dreams, but also to light the desert's Christmas candle at both ends, officially signifying the beginning of the holiday party season. This year is no exception.

And all toes point to The Nutcracker, an adaptation of the story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by 18th-century German author and composer E.T.A. Hoffman. The Nutcracker was first performed as a ballet in 1892 in Russia and has since become part of nearly every major ballet company's repertoire, and a holiday tradition.

The familiar Nutcracker music was, of course, composed by Tchaikovsky. Ballet Arizona boasts that this year's production will bring even more magic to Arizona families than last year's--magic in the form of 110 costumes consisting of nearly 4,500 yards of fabric and 100 pounds of beads, scenic projectors creating 150 3-D images, 15 painted backdrops, and the coup de gráce, a 50-foot Christmas tree made of 3,000 dyed ostrich feathers. Special effects and sets were designed by scenographer Thomas Munn of the San Francisco Opera.

Child-labor activists take heart--the work is spread thin in this production. In three casts, more than 150 children from around Arizona will fill the stage, with the role of Clara shared among a trio of Valley lovelies. And, in the spirit of making dreams come true, any child between 7 and 12 years old may participate in a drawing to play the Guest Soldier. The drawings will be held 30 minutes before each Nutcracker performance. The lucky duck who wins is whisked backstage, costumed, directed, appears onstage, then returns to his or her seat.

Ballet Arizona, the 10th largest ballet company in the United States, with its main corporate backer Bank of America fronting $115,000 for the upcoming production, will perform The Nutcracker 28 times this Christmas season at both Gammage Auditorium and Symphony Hall.

Junior Mints and popcorn, however, are forbidden by stern ushers at both classy venues. So in a stroke of genius, surely the brain child of a beleaguered parent who once explained in vain to a 5-year-old that intermission meant the ballet was only half over, The IMAX Nutcracker was born; it runs through Sunday, January 3, at Arizona Mills mall. Literary purists will be glad to know that the IMAX Clara doesn't doze off beneath a gargantuan Christmas tree in this film adaptation of the Nutcracker, which is truer to the original short story. In Hoffman's version, the bratty brother actually throws the Nutcracker doll into a frozen pond leading to a perilous rescue attempt by our brave Clara, and, of course, similar hallucinations that make the ballet a spectacle.

One of the biggest, most elaborate films ever produced in the impressive IMAX 3-D format, The IMAX Nutcracker features an elaborately costumed cast of 150, props built to four times life-size and Hoffman's original vision of his villain, the wicked seven-headed Mouse King.

Kids may recognize Academy Award nominee Miriam Margolyes (The Age of Innocence), who plays Sugar Plum in this Cirque du Soleil-ish production, as the voice of the endearing talking pig's dog-mom in Babe. Lotte Johnson stars as Clara, with Benjamin Hall as the Nutcracker Prince.

E.T.A. Hoffman, who committed suicide in 1822 in an attempt to escape secret service persecution for a subversive satire he penned, wouldn't live to see the full-length ballet homage to his classic children's story or to know that dance greats like George Balanchine and Rudolf Nureyev would interpret his words. But perhaps he's looking down from a seat in that great IMAX theater in the sky and giving the ultimate nod of approval to this 37-minute film production that makes his story, as he wrote it, accessible to kindhearted sisters and their bratty brothers everywhere.

--Tricia Wasbotten Parker

Ballet Arizona's The Nutcracker opens at Gammage Auditorium in Tempe on Wednesday, December 9, and is performed through Sunday, December 13; and at Phoenix Symphony Hall Wednesday, December 16, through Sunday, December 27. Tickets range from $10 to $40. 503-5555 (Dillard's), 381-1096 (Ballet Arizona). The IMAX Nutcracker plays through Sunday, January 3, at Arizona Mills mall in Tempe. 949-3100.