Emily Runkle and Hannah Robinson perform the Spanish variation from "The Nutcracker" as part of the annual presentation by the Howard County Ballet, one of the rare local stagings with live orchestral accompaniment.
Emily Runkle and Hannah Robinson perform the Spanish variation from "The Nutcracker" as part of the annual presentation by the Howard County Ballet, one of the rare local stagings with live orchestral accompaniment. (Photo by Stan Segawa, Digital Magic, Courtesy Howard County Ballet)

The Sugarplum Fairy remains the most challenging role in "The Nutcracker" ballet. A ballerina must be secure in her classical technique and mature in her dramatic skills to excel in this role. She also must be a smart leader on stage as she endeavors to keep all those tiny sugar plum darlings from tripping over one another in the Land of the Sweets.

For young dancers, being chosen for Clara also elicits "oohs" and "ahs" of envy, for it is she who gets the spotlight as she wins the heart of her Nutcracker Prince.

Nonetheless, much of the buzz this "Nutcracker" season surrounds the casting of the grown-ups for the big holiday party scene. Yes, these nondancers are expected to partake in the scene's festive social dancing, a mazurka, followed by a quadrille in front of the Christmas tree at the Stalhbaum's mansion.

Spoiler alert: Grandmother gets drunk, and Clara's brother breaks her beloved nutcracker doll — and that's just a portion of what's in store during this lively party sequence.

While local troupes depend on moms and dads to play these parts, the Washington Ballet invites politicos and "celeb-vocates" (a word coined by reporters to describe celebrities who show up in D.C. espousing particular causes). In the past, we have seen senators, judges and even basketball stars appear in the company's popular holiday stagings.

You never know who might show up on stage at the Warner Theatre, where the Washington Ballet is presenting "The Nutcracker" now through Christmas Eve. (Some of the local dance blogs might be able to tip you to some of the last-minute casting coups.)

This season is special as the company is marking the 50th anniversary of presenting "The Nutcracker" in our nation's capitol.

Artistic director Septime Webre is paying homage to founder Mary Day by re-staging her 1961 original vision, blended with details of his own Americana version, set in 1882 Georgetown. It's always a treat to watch company dancers take on the roles of George Washington as the Nutcracker King, King George III as the Rat King, Indians and frontiersmen. The gorgeous music is being provided by a live orchestra, funded by a donation from philanthropic dance supporter Adrienne Arsht, who may just pop up in the production one night.

Some 28 performances remain, including evenings and matinees. Orchestra tickets range from $30 to $90, with discounts for military and students. Special events include a Tea Party at the Willard Hotel following the matinee performance on Sunday, Dec. 11. For more information, call 202-362-3606 or go to http://www.washingtonballet.org.

Patricia Berrend, who has become the keeper of the flame with regards to Mary Day's early works, is also honoring her mentor by presenting the Olney Ballet Theatre in a pristine, right-on-the-money "Nutcracker."

Forget the Mother Ginger character with her oversized skirt and silly munchkins. This version returns to Day's 1961 creations, including a fanciful chef; his large spoon, which gets him into much trouble; and a cute toddler helper. The Olney company dances this version 14 times at the Olney Theatre Center, Dec. 9-24. For more information, call 301-924-3400 or go to http://www.olneytheatre.org.

The American Ballet Theatre is itself an American treasure that tackles "The Nutcracker" with dash and daring. This version of the classic ballet fantasy will be danced at the Kennedy Center's Opera House Dec. 8-11. Purchase a full-price seat to ABT's "The Nutcracker" and save $10 on select orchestra seats to see more thrilling ballet performances during the winter season.

Call toll-free 800-444-1324 for up-to-date details on the center's free holiday offerings. You can find the extensive listings at http://www.kennedy-center.org.

The student spin

For the Howard County Ballet staging of "The Nutcracker," look for professional dancer Heather Malone to share the "plum" lead role of the Sugarplum with Emilee Hooper, who came up through the ranks of the company under the tutelage of director Kathi Ferguson. Both girls will be led in the grand pas de deux by visiting artist Cedric Bonner.

Twelve-year-old Danica Steckler, one of three darling Claras in this full-length staging, seemed to be attracting all the attention in a recent ballet class. With her bright smile, the petite Patapsco Middle School student gleefully observed about the role, "You get to be on stage the whole time!" Anna Donnelly, 12; and Morgan Geraghty, 13, round out the roll call of talented Claras for this production.

Setting the Howard County Ballet staging apart from most local "Nutcracker" offerings is the participation of live symphonic music. The Howard County Ballet Orchestra accompanies the on-stage dancers at Centennial High School, Dec. 16-18. Tickets are $19.50, general; $12 for senior citizens, students and children. The latter will especially get a kick out of the rowdy boy-soldiers and little-girl mice as that magical indoor tree just grows and grows. For information, call 410-465-9414 or go to http://www.howardcountyballet.org.

Marcia Lachman started producing her annual staging of "The Nutcracker" nearly a quarter century ago. Columbia's first dance teacher continues this tradition with the unique adaptation performed by the Arabesque Dance Company in the Jim Rouse Theatre, Dec. 17-18. Arabesque's show is highly recommended for viewers of kindergarten age. Young eyes grow very big taking in the on-stage magic of the music and costumes.

As in the past three years, the Central Maryland Youth Ballet is putting on its "Nutcracker" at the Slayton House Theatre in the Village of Wilde Lake, Dec. 9-11. This one is full of special touches by co-directors Kimmary and Jacob Rice. Plus there's the added bonus of discovering new talent, teenage ballerinas who began as tiny mice and will blossom into soloists during the candy dance variations. Call 443-472-772 for ticket availability.

Kinetics Dance Theatre presents its unique "The Cracked Nut," a funky twist on the original narrative, this weekend, Dec. 3-4 at the Howard County Center for the Arts. Call 410-480-1686 for details.

Cindee Velle's charming Columbia Chamber Ballet brings back its abbreviated version of "The Nutcracker" to our area in a number of free and paid public showcases. Again, as in the past two decades, this fine production features the best parts of the ballet, including the children's march and the battle scene between the mice and the soldiers — plus it has angels, snowflakes, candy canes and solo variations galore.

Catch the Columbia Chamber Ballet dancers this Saturday, Dec. 3, at the National Aquarium, where there's an $8 admission after 5 p.m. (go to http://www.aqua.org). The following day, the troupe performs at the Howard County Arts Council's Black Box Theatre, Sunday, Dec. 4, at 3 p.m. The admission is $5 for ages 2 and older. Next, comes a return to home-based Stonehouse in the Village of Long Reach Saturday, Dec. 10, at 3 p.m. Admission here is free, though advanced reservations are required.

The troupe performs for the Fairhaven Retirement Community in Sykesville Sunday, Dec. 11, at 3 p.m., followed by a gig at the Vantage House Retirement Community in Columbia, Monday, Dec. 19, at 7:30 p.m. The "Nuts" finale takes place in the Great Room in Historic Savage Mill, with a $5 admission at the door. For more information, call 410-465-7674 or go to http://www.cindeevelleballet.com.

'Nuts' is also nice on ice

Even if you're already acquainted with the Snow Queen, her Cavalier, and the magical Uncle Drosselmeyer, chances are you're not used to seeing them come gliding in on a wintry sheet of ice. Kudos to the Columbia Figure Skating Club for a singular winter wonderland production of "The Nutcracker on Ice," featuring some 80 skaters as a variety of familiar characters.

This fast-paced version will be presented four times at the Columbia Ice Rink, Dec. 17-18. General admission is $12, with little ones, age 2 and younger, free. Due to the popularity of this show, advanced ticket purchase is a must. Don't forget to bring a lap blanket and warm coat. Call 410-730-0321.

Other areas go 'Nuts'

Guest artists add extra sweetness to local "Nuts," and this season we'll be treated to stars of American Ballet Theater in two Baltimore area locations. The Carroll County Dance Center welcomes ABT dancers in the roles of the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier at the Gordon Center for the Performing Arts in Owings Mills, Saturday and Sunday, Dec. 10-11. Look for lots of Howard County kids in the ranks of this talented group.

The Baltimore Ballet always puts on a fine production of "The Nutcracker," and the professional dancers included this year are awesome. Tickets may already be sold-out for the performances at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium Saturday, Dec. 10, at 6:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 11, at 4 p.m. Any tickets available at the door will go for $40, general; $20 for children younger than 12. For a better deal, go to http://www.baltimoreballet.org.

Russian to make the dance

For sheer splendor and elegant dancing, nothing tops Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker" at the Lyric Opera House, Dec. 17-18. The Baltimore cast boasts award-winning dancers Karyna Shatkovskaya as Masha (Clara) and Vladimir Tkachenko as the Nutcracker Prince, along with a corps of 40 Russian dancers in over 200 lavish costumes.

Tickets are pricey here, and the VIP package features orchestra center seating and selected souvenirs. The best seats sell out quickly, so call or contact online Ticketmaster. And if you attend, look for young Vivian Yancey, 8; and AiAi Calmer, 7, in the children's scenes. Both girls attend classes at Misako Ballet Studio in Columbia.

For my kopeks (or rubels), I'm banking on Howard County's own L'Etoile Ballet/The Russian Ballet Academy of Maryland. The second annual production of their authentic Russian "Nutcracker" will be danced in the Century High School Auditorium, in Sykesville, Saturday, Dec. 10, at 2 and 6 p.m.

This is a full-length staging with gorgeous backdrops, handmade props, a growing Christmas tree and talented young dancers. Guest artists include Violeta Angelova, a world-class ballerina; and Michael Cook — both recently seen with the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center. There will also be a special appearance by Vadim Pijicov, who is always a delight to watch. Three dozen elementary, middle and high school dancers are also part of this production, lovingly directed by Svetlana Kravtsova. Call 443-393-1197 or go to http://www.russballet.org.

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