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‘Tis the season for Nutcrackers

Delta Festival Ballet's 'Nutcracker' is among the New Orleans area's oldest.

Call it the plum pudding of the ballet world.

Every year, The Nutcracker recirculates in all of its Christmas-tree-mushrooming, mouse-cavorting, toy-soldier marching glory. And like its culinary corollary, it can be stale or fresh, traditional or boundary-breaking, chock full of surprises or a semi-tired second serving of a recipe that is at once familiar and reassuring, if inevitably a little dry.

This year, New Orleans has eight of them. Eight. That’s right: eight different Nutcracker offerings. One for each of Santa’s reindeer; enough to fill an Abita Amber six-pack with a deuce left over (pour me one, quickly); one for each day of the week plus an extra for lagniappe.

It’s a lot of largesse for what, like plum pudding, can be an acquired taste.

For years, I dragged my three daughters to one version or another of this ubiquitous holiday offering. I wish I could say that my heart pitter-pattered along with theirs as Christmas Eve unfolded at the Stahlbaum house.

But, really, there is so little dancing in The Nutcracker. The ballet evolves – certainly the lengthy first act, anyway — as a kind of giant pantomime, a Christmas-themed masquerade of colorfully costumed mice and men. It’s a production filled with big props and little kids.

As a journalist, I covered season after season of Nutcracker bounty, profiling young girls stepping into their first toe-shoe solos as Clara, chronicling the audition process for generations of dancing dolls and Christmas guests, watching backstage as legions of sword-swinging toy soldiers battled armies of disorderly mice.

I’m not the only one who was slow to embrace the enchantment.

The Russian debut performance in December 1892 of Tchaikovsky’s perennially popular ballet was not, reportedly, a success. The libretto was dismissed as “lopsided,” the story as unfaithful to the original (E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice”), and, despite five curtain calls, the Sugar Plum Fairy described as “corpulent” and “pudgy.” Much of the criticism focused on using so many children in a serious adult ballet. Then, as now, they tended to fidget and fuss onstage.

But of course that’s half the fun on both sides of the footlights these days, with proud parents beaming at young thespian offspring as they romp the boards.

And, to be fair, it’s not always amateur night when The Nutcracker arrives. George Balanchine’s 1954 staging for the New York City Ballet (still thriving annually there) has become the ballet’s gold standard, while other standout performances have included Rudolf Nureyev’s production for London’s Royal Ballet and Mikhail Baryshnikov’s for American Ballet Theater.

In New Orleans, the grand dame of Nutcracker purveyors is Delta Festival Ballet, now in its 30th year. Ballet Hysell isn’t far behind, and local veteran ballet master Lelia Haller has a version as well. But even with eight different offerings, the Big Easy’s Nutcrackers are a mere drop in the yuletide bucket.

According to The Los Angeles Times, in December 2011 a whopping 121 U.S. cities hosted Nutcracker productions, for a total of 751 public performances. Of those, 33 featured live horses, four were set in 1950s Harlem, and one was narrated by a trio of rats.

At the far end of the spectrum lies Boston’s annual burlesque-inspired “Slutcracker.”

Despite such Nutcracker versatility, there is one constant that makes any production worthwhile: The music alone is worth the price of admission. The Nutcracker Suite, comprised of eight of the more popular numbers from the ballet selected by Tchaikovsky himself, remains one of the most recognizable – and lyrical — pieces of music in the 21st century. And the familiar strains of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (remember Disney’s Fantasia?) are as classical a holiday offering as any Christmas Carol.

Besides, what other holiday entertainment offers a Mirliton Dance? Is that New Orleans, or what?

Fantasia, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy:

Here’s a look at the remaining Nutcrackers in the New Orleans region (three have already come and gone):

Delta Festival Ballet: Now in its 30th year, this veteran Nutcracker has the added attraction of live music by the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra. New York City Ballet soloist Janie Taylor, who was cast during her years at the Giacobbe Academy of Dance here as Clara, returns as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Dec. 21-23, Dixon Hall on the Tulane University Campus.

Ballet Hysell: The Snow Queen and her prince are played by Eleanor Bernard and Ian Carney, whose Lightwire Theater recently wowed the judges on “America’s Got Talent.” Live music by the Jefferson Performing Arts Society Orchestra. Dec. 22-23, Jefferson Performing Arts Center, 400 Phlox St., Metairie.

River Region Ballet: Long (adult) and short (kids) versions. Dec. 8-9, Destrehan High School Auditorium.

Ballet Louisiane: Eleanor Bernard and Ian Casey (see above) join a cast of 120, including more than 50 children, in this sixth annual production by Lelia Haller Ballet Classique. But our favorite performer will surely be Times-Picayune veteran Martin Covert as Drosselmeyer. Dec. 14-15, Jesuit High School Auditorium.

Baton Rouge Ballet Theater: Sure, it’s something of a drive from New Orleans, but this local landmarks version is subtitled “A Tale from the Bayou,” and has music by the Baton Rouge Symphony Orchestra. Dec. 15-16, Rviver Center Theater for the Perfoming Arts, Baton Rouge.

Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.



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