Christmas is a little more than two weeks away, but there’s still plenty of time to see “The Nutcracker,” the 19th-century Russian ballet about the little girl, her magical Nutcracker doll and her journey into the Land of Sweets.
Tucson Regional Ballet’s Southwest Nutcracker deploys advanced student dancers in its school and guest stars from the UA School of Dance, including a former pro with Charlotte Ballet, along with equally adorable kid dancers. It boasts a live music performance by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker score.
And TRP sets the European tale right here in America. Its charming “Southwest Nutcracker” takes place in 1880s Tucson: the story’s mice soldiers are transformed into coyotes, the mysterious Drosselmeyer becomes Tío Diego, and the heroine is a Mexican girl living in a territorial house in the Old Pueblo.
“The Nutcracker” is drawn from an old German story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. Famed choreographer Petipa based his ballet on Alexandre Dumas’s reworking of the tale; the work debuted to Tchaikovsky’s music in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892.
It was not until 1944 that the San Francisco Ballet staged its first full American performance. But it was George Balanchine who made it an American staple. In 1954, the Russian-born choreographer brought the version he remembered from his childhood to the New York City Ballet. Today, that production’s DNA flows in every American Nutcracker, including those in the Old Pueblo.
Dascha Letson, dancing the dream role of the Prickly Pear Fairy, counterpart of the traditional Sugar Plum Fairy, practically grew up in the Tucson Regional Ballet studio.
“She started at the age of 3 and she was always eager to learn,” says company artistic director Linda Walker. “She was bright-eyed. She always thought working at the bar was ‘So much fun.’”
Now 17, Letson spent the last two summers studying in intensive workshops at the prestigious Joffrey Ballet.
“She’s a beautiful dancer,” Walker says. “She’s definitely pre-professional.”
Letson will dance Prickly Pear in all three of the Southwest Nutcracker concerts this weekend, partnered by guest dancer Alejandro MullerDahlberg. A student at the UA School of Dance, he will take on the role of Caballero, elsewhere known as Cavalier.
North Dakotan Muller Dahlberg, who played the Nutcracker in the troupe’s production last year, is one of four guest dancers from UA Dance. Gregory Taylor, dancing the role of Nutcracker this year, is the pro who danced for five years with Ballet Charlotte before coming to the UA. Aaron Smith of Detroit, a grad student in the MFA program, plays Tío Diego. Mitchell McCroskey, from Kansas, will dance Tumbleweed, a challenging gymnastic role
The guest artists are “all wonderful,” Walker says. “They’re kind to the children. They make rehearsals very pleasant.”
About 90 people perform in the production, from little kids on up to the senior company dancers and guest artists. A team of local adults play the party guests in the opening scene. One regular, Christopher McNamara, is a police officer with TPD.
“He started doing the Nutcracker when his daughter was in the company,” Walker says. His daughter no longer dances, but her cop dad has soldiered on, stepping out each year on the Nutcracker stage.