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Photograph by John Gerbetz

Chariot of Feathers: Stephane Dalle and Karen Gabay dance the roles of Prince Alexis and Maria in 'The Nutcracker.'

Dancing on Tradition

Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley breathes new life into 'The Nutcracker'

By Marianne Messina

WHEN YOU SPEAK to artistic director Dennis Nahat about Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's annual production of The Nutcracker, he doesn't sound like a man who's been staging the same work every year since 1979. Rather than blasé, or worse, bored, he seems energized. Reshaping the ballet to bring out the best in each new crop of dancers is both Nahat's genius and his inspiration. "I look at what their technical abilities are," he says, "and we change some of the solos for each dancer."

Though the ballet's production uses adult dancers in rotating casts for the principal roles of Maria, Prince Alexis and Herr Drosselmeyer, it draws heavily from its school of young talent for the other parts. And when Nahat spots a youngster with promise, he is not above exasperating the crew with changes in the program. "I've added a character to the first act this season because I have two young boys in the school who are perfect little boys, and I've named them Fritz. And I've given them a pony to ride, a gift, a horse. So that's a new gift that has to be added."

The addition has caused a small domino effect and minor grumblings from the wings. "I've changed the sequence of giving gifts away, asked the conductor to conduct a little slower at this point so I can get all the gifts out. And then ... the parents have a new child where they never had one before. And so wardrobe has to make a new costume."

The ballet's production differs from many traditional Nutcrackers in the way it favors a more technically challenging principal dance role. It's Nahat's hope that those attracted to The Nutcracker for its familiarity will also be uplifted by the beauty of dance itself. "The way we tell the story is clear as a bell," Nahat says. "There's no question about what happens on that stage."

There's actually something Zen about mounting a familiar favorite year after year, in repetitions that quicken the eye for detail until, as theatergoers return and the newness wears off, something iconic and mystical sets in. "Every year, there's always an eye for detail," Nahat explains. "Every present is gone over, every gift is wrapped again, everything is painted clearly." And Nahat watches every performance like a mother hen, even noting when a single light bulb among hundreds has burned out. He corrects the problem before the next performance. Asked why someone should see Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley's Nutcracker when just to the north in San Francisco, their ballet presents America's oldest production of the classic, Nahat replies without missing a beat, "Ours is simply better."

The Nutcracker, presented by Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, plays Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 1:30 and 7:30pm, Sunday (Dec. 14) at 4pm, Sunday (Dec. 21 and 27) at 1:30 and 7:30pm, Sunday (Dec. 28) at 1:30pm, Tuesday at 4pm and Thursday (Dec. 18) at 7:30pm through Dec. 28 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd., San Jose. Tickets are $19-$68. The ballet presents a special short version for kids on Sunday (Dec. 14) at 1:30pm. (408.288.2800) Also: The Santa Clara Ballet Association presents its production of 'The Nutcracker' Dec. 13 at 2 and 7pm and Dec. 14 at 1 and 5pm at the Santa Clara Convention Center Theater, 5001 Great America Parkway, Santa Clara. Tickets are $10-$25. (408.881.0879). Western Ballet presents 'The Nutcracker' Dec. 12 at 8pm, Dec 13 at 2 and 8pm and Dec. 14 at 2 and 6pm at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $18.50-$22.50. (650.903.6000)

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From the December 11-17, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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