Every child who believes in Christmas magic knows the blissful struggle between sleep and anticipation on Christmas Eve.
And though visions of sugarplums have long been supplanted by those of roller blades and Barbie dolls, children weren't so very different a century ago. That's when the "Nutcracker" ballet first captured the imagination of audiences throughout the world with its story of a little girl's Christmas Eve dream.
"Nutcracker" has endured to become synonymous with Christmas, a seasonal family tradition and among the most popular productions in dance history.
"The images are very powerful," says Nanette Arciaga, artistic director of Harford Dance Theatre and third-time director of the piece. "A mysterious magic man, an enchanted doll, a handsome cavalier and beautiful dancing fairy who reign in a land of sweets -- what child can resist characters like these?"
Roger Wade, who dances the role of the Cavalier in the Harford Dance Theatre production, agrees.
"Christmas and fantasy are a sure-fire combination for kids," he says. "And for me, the music is very special, so danceable and bright."
Perennial Harford Dance Theatre fans needn't fear this season's "Nutcracker" will be a rerun of last year's.
"The choreography is always changing," said Ms. Arciaga. "The dances tend to reflect the personalities of the choreographers, and this year, it's quite an unusual mix."
The production blends elements of modern dance, ballroom dance, even acrobatics with the century-old original Russian Ballet choreog raphy.
This year's centennial production will be bigger and better than ever, says Susan Nicolaides, who manages the company in residence at Harford Community College.
The show boasts a cast of more than 80 dancers and actors, ages 7 to 70.
The spacious stage at Havre de Grace High School is ideal for cartwheeling candy canes and pirouetting snowflakes. A lavish set is planned, including the ever-popular Christmas tree that magically grows on stage with the help of a hidden hydraulic lift.
From audition day to opening night, an enormous amount of creative energy and plain hard work go into this undertaking.
Under the direction of Ms. Arciaga, a team of 10 choreographers, many of them former professional dancers, have rehearsed since Labor Day to transform a gaggle of self-conscious teen-agers into the corps of ballerinas who will glide across the stage next weekend.
Ticket sales have been brisk, and Ms. Nicolaides expects the show to draw a wider audience, especially from the Aberdeen and Havre de Grace areas, as well as from Cecil County.
The Havre de Grace Arts Commission and Department of Parks and Recreation have helped publicize the show.
If the "Nutcracker" is flawed, audiences haven't seemed to notice. Each Christmas they flock by the thousands to cosmopolitan theaters and small-town auditoriums across the country.
Over 1,000 companies in the United States reportedly mount "Nutcracker" productions each year. Many of these dance troupes depend on "Nutcracker" ticket sales to bolster their meager budgets.
"That's certainly the case for Harford Dance Theatre," says Ms. Nicolaides.
"Our 'Nutcracker' has played to sold-out houses for 10 years now.The revenues we realize from this one production make it possible for us to produce our spring concerts of modern and jazz dance, which don't attract such large audiences."
Performances of the Harford Dance Theatre "Nutcracker' are Friday to next Sunday at Havre de Grace High School. Tickets are available at the Harford Community College box office and in Havre de Grace at Preston's Stationery and the Susquehanna Trading Co. For more information, call the HCC box office at 836-4211.