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Great Russian Nutcracker Incorporates Local Kids

It's hard to believe that "The Nutcracker" ballet was not a hit from the get-go. Maybe it's because the premiere came during a double-bill performance that included Tchaikovsky's lyric opera Iolanta.

Nutcracker is the dreamy story of a girl who rescues a nutcracker prince during a battle with the Mouse King and his minions. It was cooked up in a novella called "Nutcracker and Mouse King," by E.T.A. Hoffman in the 19th century.

Tchaikovsky wrote the music for the ballet and apparently bristled against the tight dictates for the composition. 

The ballet was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, but it wasn't performed in the U.S. until the Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine produced it in the 1950's.

That's why Americans know his Nutcracker version the best, according to Judy Johnson, who has been training dancers at her local studio for decades.

And on the day after Christmas, audiences will see a different kind of nutcracker at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Pete. Johnson describes this version as having "more action, more child appeal."

It's the Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker," with sets designed by an Academy Award winner and costumes hand-crafted for the company. 

Another distinction for this show is community involvement. More than 100 local children will be dancing with the professional dancers in this "Nutcracker."

Johnson has been rehearsing the children, who range in age from 5 to 14, at her studio near Mirror Lake in St. Petersburg for several weeks in anticipation of the three performances.

Parents, mostly moms, have been ferrying their children to rehearsal from towns all over the bay area, like Plant City, Hudson, Tampa and Palm Harbor.

That's where Melissa Gray and her family live. Her daughter Julia Gray will be dancing in this year's "Great Russian Nutcracker."

Gray says, "It's been totally worth the drive, so far."

She says Julia got the performance bug from her grandmother. "It's skipped me, completely skipped my generation. But, both my girls, I think, got that bug from my mama."

The children were hand-picked for the production by Carolina Siscanu, a Moldovan ballerina with the Moscow Ballet who will also dance on stage with the children, "in any role she's needed in" because she knows them all.

Siscanu says this performance is "the only one that has kids involved in it. No other company does that from anywhere. Just this company involves American kids and gives them the chance to be on stage with Russian professional dancers."

Johnson says the partnership with the Moscow Ballet gives her students a glimpse into a world they might not otherwise see.

"They're backstage with all the professional dancers. I'd say 90 percent of them are speaking Russian," Johnson says. "You hear some American, you hear a lot of Russian and then you hear lots of giggles, and you have no idea what it was unless you were watching and you know, you could see it happen." 

It's a major undertaking and even though she's been doing this with the Moscow Ballet for 13 years, Johnson says, "Sometimes I'm amazed it all happens. Last year, Carolina can relate, we had snowflakes go the wrong way and some of the corps dancers were almost tripping over them. But that's the first time that's happened, in all these years."

Siscanu adds the professional dancers will suppress their laughter if something should go haywire. "But it's always fun for us when a little kid goes the wrong way."

The Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker" will have three shows at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on December 26th. Then it's on to performances in Miami, Sarasota and Lakeland. 

I love telling stories about my home state. And I hope they will help you in some way and maybe even lift your spirits.
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