For several Central Kentucky ballet companies, and indeed, ballets across the United States, The Nutcracker has become a holiday tradition as indispensable as Santa Claus and Nativity scenes. But before it was an American tradition, it was a Russian classic.
Touring productions scheduled for two of the major performing arts centers in the Bluegrass aim to bring that tradition from the motherland this week.
On Monday, the Moscow Ballet brings the 20th annual Great Russian Nutcracker Tour to the University of Kentucky's Singletary Center for the Arts. On Friday, State Ballet Theatre of Russia presents its version of The Nutcracker at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond.
Hailing from the land where the classic was born in Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffman's story, the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the original choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, there are similarities in how the companies view Nutcracker but differences in how they present it.
"They do perform it and learn all the roles," Sally Michael Keyes, spokeswoman for the Moscow Ballet, says of Russian dancers. "But it is not as big in Russia as it is here. Ballets like Swan Lake and Don Quixote are as important."
State Ballet spokeswoman Anastasia Dukhnina agrees: "It's a very famous ballet. And there is a similar tradition in that it's done every year. But we bring several productions in the United States each year."
She says the State Ballet is also touring Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. But at this time of year, audiences want The Nutcracker.
There are distinguishing characteristics for each company.
The State Ballet purports to present a longstanding Russian tradition; Moscow Ballet's version draws inspiration from recent decades, particularly the increased openness of government due to glasnost and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991.
"There is a theme that runs through the production, like there is a dove that carries the Prince and Masha (Clara) to the land of peace instead of the land of sweets," Keyes says.
For its 20th annual tour Moscow Ballet has been redone the dove, using two dancers creating a 20-foot wingspan.
"It's a really cool look," Keyes says.
The State Ballet leans more on traditions, including the composition of the cast.
"Traditionally, Russian ballet productions rarely use children," Dukhnina says, acknowledging that American productions often load up on children, particularly for Clara's party scene. "Russian ballets treat it as a very serious, classical art that goes back to 1892."
Likewise, the Moscow Ballet does not travel with children. But at a number of stops, including Lexington, local children will be part of the show. Students from Bluegrass Youth Ballet, who have their own Nutcracker in One Act at the Singletary Center in December, will be in the show.
Keyes says it is a big opportunity for the students to work with Russian dancers, widely regarded as the finest in the world.
"With the Russian dancers, the precision is just stunning," Keyes says. "In the leaps, the legs are parallel; everything is just perfect."
And the Russians take pride in that, regardless of the company they are with.
"It is a beautiful, classical tradition," Dukhnina says. "And bringing it to the United States is a major, major undertaking."