Even people who ordinarily find ballet a tough nut to crack can find themselves falling for the charms of "The Nutcracker." Set to an ear worm-filled score by Tchaikovsky, the ballet tells a Christmas Eve story of childhood and fantasy, toys and sweets, snow and sentiment.
As much an annual holiday tradition as Handel's "Messiah," the ballet is presented by companies of every size and level all over the country. Two large-sized productions are on the local calendar this weekend.
"I think 'Nutcracker' will bring a lot of Christmas spirit to Baltimore," says sophomore Alexandra Rojas, who is among 120 dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts participating in one of those productions.
It's a reprise of last year's inaugural collaboration of the BSA, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Maryland Institute College of Art and the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric. The BSA has long performed "Nutcracker," but, until 2012, only at the school. Moving onto the Lyric's stage is a big, helpful leap for the BSA dancers.
Meanwhile, settling into the Hippodrome will be the Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker," which has been touring widely since 1993. Forty professional, Russian-trained dancers are in this ensemble, supplemented by dozens of area students.
"It's the best venue on the tour," says the company's costume designer Arthur Oliver. "The Hippodrome is so beautiful, and we get a live orchestra for this stop."
Most of the Moscow Ballet's "Nutcracker" performances are danced to a taped music; this one features the Concert Artists of Baltimore in the pit. With the BSO playing for the BSA production, that means two "Nutcrackers" in town with professional orchestras on the same weekend, something of a luxury.
Speaking of luxury, the Moscow Ballet staging has a reputation for elegant costumes and colorful props, including 10-feet-high puppets.
"Russians are known not just for dance, but costumes, and ours are made in St. Petersburg by Vozrozhdeniye, one of the oldest and most respected ateliers in the world," Oliver says. "They're definitely eye-popping."
The most unexpected costume in this production is the Dove of Peace. Oliver's design requires two dancers, although only one can be seen at first; when the second emerges, the costume reveals a wingspan of 20 feet.
"It's a really amazing feat, like something out of Cirque du Soleil," says Lee Mills, the Peabody Conservatory-trained conductor for the Moscow Ballet's performances in Baltimore.
Tchaikovsky would be surprised to see a Dove of Peace in "Nutcracker." That character didn't exist in the ballet that premiered on Dec. 18, 1892 in St. Petersburg.
The original story, fashioned by legendary choreographer Marius Petipa, is based on an 1816 tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann. It centers on young Clara, daughter of a mayor, and her uncle/godfather Drosselmeyer, who bears some fun Christmas presents, including a nutcracker.
During the night, all sorts of crazy things happen. A Christmas tree grows in size, toy soldiers come to life, mice invade. And the nutcracker becomes a prince, who sweeps Clara off her feet; the two head off through the snow to the Land of Sweets, home of the Sugar Plum Fairy and other enchantments.
The BSA production, which started rehearsals in September, features basically traditional choreographed by Barry Hughson, newly named executive director of the National Ballet of Canada.
"Our version is less psychological than some Russian versions," says Norma Pera, head of the dance department at the Baltimore School for the Arts. "It can be thought of as being from a child's viewpoint. Clara ends up realizing that she's been dreaming."
The Moscow Ballet staging, choreographed by Stanislav Vlasov, cuts down on the sugar content in "Nutcracker." Replacing the Land of Sweets in Act 2 is the Land of Peace and Harmony, where dances represent various nations, all getting along.
This year, the company brought in a non-dancer to help fine-tune things — the fine British actor and director James Warwick, whose credits include sparkling performances in the early 1980s British TV series "Agatha Christie's Partners in Crime."
"The production has been going on for 20 years," Warwick says, "and the producers thought maybe a fresh look at the story line might add something this time 'round. The dancers looked at me as if they were thinking, 'Who is this lunatic?' But dancers love to think about something other than their feet, and they were incredibly open about developing their characters."
That includes such easily overlooked roles as the guests who arrive at the mayor's house in the opening scene for a Christmas Eve party.
"The dancers can't just come on without any motivation," Warwick says. "I suggested that these guests all know each other, but they don't all get on. When I saw the performance in Albany the other day, I thought, maybe, just maybe, I made a little bit of difference."
For students in the BSA production, issues of motivation and psychological underpinnings may not be the most crucial concern, but the young dancers are not just focused on executing the choreography.
Quincy Dow, a senior, has the role of the Prince. "You have to show that he and Clara really are in love," he says. "If there is no connection, you cannot tell the story."
Adds Jared Kelly, a junior who is dancing the marzipan number in Act 2: "Families coming to the performance will be mainly looking at the story aspect more than the technical aspect of the dancing, so we have to be the characters."
Performing this particular ballet is something Kibrea Carmichael, now a senior, has been determined to do since watching rehearsals as a pre-teen at BSA.