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Two area ballet companies will spin 'Nutcracker's' magical spell

| Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, 1:33 a.m.
Characters from the many worlds of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” swarm the stage during a 2012 Pittsburgh Ballet Theater performance of the beloved classic.
Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Characters from the many worlds of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” swarm the stage during a 2012 Pittsburgh Ballet Theater performance of the beloved classic.
The Laurel Ballet and Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra perform an annual rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg, seen here in 2015.
Kim Stepinsky | for TRIB TOTAL MEDIA
The Laurel Ballet and Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra perform an annual rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” at the Palace Theatre in Greensburg, seen here in 2015.

The most popular ballet in America is the story of a girl’s magical Christmas Eve.

It begins with the family’s holiday party, at which one of her gifts is a large nutcracker in the form of a solider. It continues with her dreams that night, in which the nutcracker comes to life as her prince and she travels with him to the Land of Enchantment.

With a child as the ballet’s protagonist plus a cast including dozens of children, and lifted by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s exciting and beautiful music, “The Nutcracker” exemplifies family entertainment.

Laurel Ballet Company will present three performances of “The Nutcracker” with the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Meyer, Dec. 8 and 9 in Greensburg’s Palace Theatre.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre will present 25 performances of “The Nutcracker,” danced to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s music, from Nov. 30 to Dec. 27 in Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center.

Signature effect

This season, the Laurel Ballet and Westmoreland Symphony celebrate 25 years of collaborating on “The Nutcracker.” Artistic director Eleanor Tornblom’s production is set in Victorian America.

She was inspired by George Balanchine’s famous New York City Ballet production, which debuted in 1954. Her version includes a Christmas tree that grows taller on stage, one of Balanchine’s signature effects.

Sarah Barkley-Mastalski, Ashlyn Mough and Katie Parker will each perform the central role at one of performances, which also will feature Jonathan Meilaender as the Nutcracker Prince.

The Westmoreland Symphony’s music director Daniel Meyer will lead all three performances.

“I look forward to it every year,” he says. “It’s incredibly detailed and gorgeously crafted music. It’s creative and ingenious the way Tchaikovsky uses the orchestra. The way he isolates instruments like the celesta or oboe, or even the rat-a-tat-tat of the snare drum, are all masterful touches which bring the story to life.”

Drama and humor

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s current production of “The Nutcracker” debuted in 2002. Artistic director Terrence Orr set it in Pittsburgh, with direct images and allusions to many local landmarks.

That it will be performed 25 times testifies to its popularity and position as a Pittsburgh holiday tradition.

Orr tweaks his production each season. This year, he’s added drama and humor to the opening scene, while other choreographic changes are designed to heighten the musicality and clarity of the storytelling.

Orr says he loves to hear the audience talking about things they’ve seen before but have just picked up on some nuance or other, as well as how incredible the dancers are.

“It took them a while to get strong enough to do all the steps we’ve talked about, but they’re quite wonderful now,” he says.

Orr uses rotating casting for the more than two dozen performances.

Principal dancer Alexandra Kochis will portray the girl at about one third of the performances. At other shows she’ll dance the Sugar Plum Fairy, Snow Queen, Reed Shepherdess and the female in the Arabian Dance.

Kochis finds it easy and natural to get in touch with her younger self when performing “The Nutcracker.”

“I think she’s 12 or 13, a little bit too old to be entertained by kid’s games but believing in the magic of it all. I’m much older than that and still believe in that magic, too, so hopefully that never goes away,” she says. “When you have the cast of kids around you, you feel their excitement and energy. It’s pretty easy to channel that.

“ ‘The Nutcracker’ is a joy for me to perform and my favorite role. I find that it’s kind of a sounding board — not only for my technique but also where I am in life.”

Mark Kanny is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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