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For a lot of people, "The Nutcracker" is a tough nut to crack.

Maybe you're roped into going. Or you're harried from the holidays. You've seen one too many bad performances – or one too many spoofs.

Fear not. We bring you tidings of great joy.

With a little knowledge, "The Nutcracker" can be a dangerous thing.

Read this – then get ready to go and experience it with new eyes and ears. To find that "The Nutcracker" can be, well, all it's cracked up to be.

>Let's get cracking

Marvin Askew, who leads his students at Buffalo City Ballet in an annual "Nutcracker," has practical advice to get you started.

"You want to look at price, especially when you got kids," he says. "Look at if you are getting a traditional or a new version. You're choosing a flavor. Do your research before just choosing a ‘Nutcracker.' Sometimes it's good to call and ask questions about it."

As you settle into your seat, remember: You are seeing a work of art that is controversial.

When "The Nutcracker" premiered – in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia – just about the only person who liked it was Czar Alexander III. Its latter-day popularity is often credited to George Balanchine, whose choreography gave the ballet new legs in the 1950s. But it may have suffered initially because it was just plain odd.

The ballet is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman (1776-1882), whose genre was fantasy/horror. He was an influence on Edgar Allan Poe, whose "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" was said to be inspired by a Hoffman story.

Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," about a girl whose toy comes to life, might have been intended for kids. Still, it has a hallucinatory quality. Directors choose whether to play up this aspect, or not.

The suspense is part of the fun.

>The party scene

"The Nutcracker" is weird from the word go. The curtain rises on a room set for a lavish Christmas party. "Everything is big," says Heidi Halt of Neglia Ballet Artists. "The Christmas tree, the presents, everything."

The ballet opens with a Christmas party. Askew crafts this scene so children can identify with it.
"We pretty much have kids doing what they normally do," he says. "It's more relaxing. Children look at it and think, I can be a part of that."

Children will pick up on the realistic friction between the ballet's young heroine, Clara (or Marie, in Russian versions) and her little brother, Fritz. Adults will sense something unsettling. The music takes strange turns. Tchaikovsky, like all great composers, knows how to play your subconscious.

The arrival of Herr Drosselmeyer adds a supernatural twist.

Maris Battaglia, head of the American Academy of Ballet, points out that this magician/godfather figure can be effective in different ways. She likes to vary it.

"Joe Cipolla used to do it, and he was elegant," she says. (Cipolla is head of Buffalo's Configuration Dance.) This year's Drosselmeyer, Gary Marino, puts a new spin on things. "I thought, Gary is a totally different type. He's warm and comical."

Askew makes his Drosselmeyer fatherly. "I've seen a couple versions where Drosselmeyer can be a little on the verge of creepy, and it's not very nice," he says. "This is just a sweet, loving special relationship."

Drosselmeyer could be a skilled pantomime artist. The Neglia's Drosselmeyer this year is actor Vincent O'Neill. "He's happy to have a role he doesn't have to learn 500 lines for," jokes Halt.

Drosselmeyer hands out toys. Here there can be creative license: The life-sized dolls might come out of boxes – or they might appear some other way. Watch when Drosselmeyer gives Clara the nutcracker, and when her jealous brother, Fritz, breaks it. Small gestures can have big significance.

>The battle scene

After the party, late at night, Clara returns to check on her nutcracker. The clock strikes midnight and strange things happen. Mice fill the room and the tree grows to dizzying heights. The Nutcracker also grows to life size.

This scene – the abrupt switch is a cliffhanger for backstage workers – is when you realize the story came from a horror writer. It can be disorienting and terrifying.

Halt loves it. "The tree is really enormous once it gets to its full height. I want to say its 30 feet high," she boasts. "The music is very powerful at that point. Almost nothing needs to happen."

The chaotic battle, involving huge mice and gingerbread soldiers, is a challenge for everyone. Askew's is humorous, geared toward the small fry. The Neglia, on the other hand, revels in the horror.

"Sergio [Neglia] did a great job of making that into a nightmare. He's had actual war experience," says Halt, his wife. "When we first put it together it felt like this wild madness."

The Neglia production has not a Mouse King but a Rat King.

"It's a nightmare, honey," Neglia says. "She sees rats attacking her. They want to eat her guts."

But he taps into his childhood, adding horses, and cannons firing cheese. "I liked cheese, rockets, fire, clashes of cannon, cavalieri, horses," he says. "I put stuff in that as a kid I wanted to see."

The battle won, the prince leads Clara to a moonlit pine forest where they witness the virtuosic "Dance of the Snowflakes." The music, with its wordless women's chorus, suggests a surreal, swirling motion. The dancers, in white, should appear to be flying.

This dance is a favorite of all involved. But it has its challenges. It is a taxing dance, but must appear calm and effortless.

"The music kills me, it's so beautiful. I love it," Neglia says. But he has seen productions that leave the dancers exhausted.

Battaglia sets her snow scene in Central Park, complete with an ice rink. She adds a twist: a hot-air balloon, which will take the Prince and Clara to the Land of Sweets.

The balloon comes from Flying by Foy, a famous theater company. "They flew Mary Martin," Battaglia explains. "It's expensive. "But how do you go back, after you've done that? I love the snow scene at the end. When it's snowing, and the balloon is flying up, and the dancer's mouths are full of snowflakes."

>The Land of Sweets

Act II begins with Clara and the Prince traveling to the Land of Sweets, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy. This is where the imagination can run wild.

"I've taken a lot of creative license in the second act," Battaglia says. "I can remember taking my nieces and great nieces to see it. They loved the first act. And the second act would come and they'd all fall asleep. When I decided to do this, I wanted mine to be different. We do traditional things, but we go to the North Pole, where there are dancing elves, and then we go into the sea."

In honor of the Prince and his rescuer, performers present a menu of quick dances from around the world.

The Arab coffee dance, set to muted, smoldering music and often featuring a lithe woman and a shirtless, turbaned man, is a highlight for grown-ups. "It's a very sensual dance," Askew points out. He has to tone it down for the children.

Next comes tea from China. The Neglia company gives this dance a hint of martial arts.

The Trepak, the dance of the Russian candy canes, is one of the ballet's greatest hits. At its best it can be a wild Cossack dance, with gravity-defying leaps and kicks.

But you need just the right dancers for that effect. Battaglia does not include Trepak, substituting a whimsical candy cane dance to "Santa Claus is Coming to Town."

Askew's young performers dance the Trepak with hoops, traditional in some circles. He danced it that way in Pittsburgh and finds that it works with his students. "I keep it simple and make it playful," he says.

It's fun to note the variations on Mother Ginger. An oversized figure, she is usually played comically by a man. When she lifts her voluminous skirts, children run out and creativity can soar.

The Neglia had the idea to make Mother Ginger a big cupcake. The American Academy of Ballet puts her on stilts.

"We used to do clowns years ago. A lot of companies do clowns," Battaglia says. "It can be anything that comes out from underneath that skirt."

The entertainment finishes with the Waltz of the Flowers. Directors might opt to complement flora with fauna.

"When I danced it in Chicago, I was a butterfly," Askew says. "You don't see that very often. The reason I was a butterfly was, the butterfly had huge, huge, wings. At the time my brother and I were dancing, I was 6-foot-2. We were the only ones who could leap across the stage with these wings!"

The pas de deux from "The Nutcracker" is one of ballet's great dances. It starts with a shimmering harp. Tchaikovsky's genius was such that you do not realize that the soaring theme is just a simple descending scale.

The dance can be as simple or virtuosic as the choreographer demands. "It's how you use the music," Askew says.

"What makes people fall in love with it is that it's a romantic pas de deux. The pas from [Prokofiev's] ‘Romeo and Juliet,' it's a love scene but a dying scene. Your goal is to really make people's hearts bleed out there. ‘The Nutcracker' is more of an uplifting pas de deux. It's joyful."

Battaglia is importing two dancers from the Boston Ballet, Isaac Akiba and Misa Kuranaga. They are doing the Balanchine choreography for the pas de deux, characterized by lots of leaps for him, lots of fast footwork for her.

Neglia enjoys this chance to show off. He dances both the Prince and Cavalier.

All the sweets dance a Final Waltz, and it's fun to see all of them again. The ballet ends when Clara is found sleeping in the parlor, her Nutcracker doll beside her. Was it a dream?

The ballet concludes as mysteriously as it starts.

***

Where to see ‘The Nutcracker'

On stage ...

*The Neglia Ballet Artists and the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra: ?7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday in Shea's Performing Arts Center ?(646 Main St.); $40.50-$83.50. Call 847-1410.

*The American Academy of Ballet: 1 and 7 p.m. Dec. 8 and 1 p.m. Dec. 9 ?in the UB Center for the Arts, Amherst; $19.50-$27.50. Call 645-ARTS.

*The Buffalo City Ballet: 1 and 7 p.m. Dec. 22; 3 p.m. Dec. 23 at the Buffalo Academy of Visual & Performing Arts (450 Masten Ave.); $20 general, children under 5, $15. Call 833-1243.

*Classical Ballet of WNY (formerly Lockport City Ballet): 7 p.m. next Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 1 and 2 p.m. Dec. 2 at Lockport High School (250 Lincoln Ave., Lockport); $10-$18. Call 631-1582.

*

... and screen

*2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 3, The Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia dances "The Nutcracker" in 3-D at the Regal Transit Center (6707 Transit Road, 633-8918).

*7 p.m. Dec. 25: "The Nutcracker," performed at the Royal Opera House, conducted by Koen Kessels and directed by Peter Wright, will be screened at the Amherst Theatre (3500 Main St., 834-7655).

– Mary Kunz Goldman

email: mkunz@buffnews.com