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Magic in the Air

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mice in black leotards scampered beneath the floor of the Smart & Final store on Main Street. Snowflakes swirled softly on tiny feet along a padded floor. Dolls came to life.

Just another Saturday afternoon in Ventura?

Actually, just another late November Saturday afternoon in the Channel Islands Ballet Company’s new basement studio, as dancers young and old rehearsed for the ensemble’s annual production of “The Nutcracker.”

Under the artistic direction of Clarissa Boeriu, more than 100 dancers, ages 6 to 50-plus, will perform Tchaikovsky’s Christmastime classic Friday through Sunday at the Performing Arts Center in Oxnard and Dec. 13-14 at the Lancaster Performing Arts Center.

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Most of the cast are girls from Channel Islands Ballet School in Ventura, with professional dancers imported from as far away as Russia. Elena Poryvkina of the Russian Ballet’s Vaganova Academy will perform the prima ballerina role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Alexander Greschenko, a former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet Company, will dance the part of the Cavalier.

Ventura County’s New West Symphony, directed by Boris Brott, will provide the musical accompaniment.

Preparations for the production began with auditions last spring, but rehearsals didn’t begin in earnest until late September, when the ballet company moved to its new digs below the discount merchandise store. Along with a piano, mirrored-walls and plenty of dance space, the studio has its share of distinctive basement characteristics--ceiling pipes, pillars and hanging lights.

But the location looked like almost any other traditional ballet studio as the cast closed in on its final weeks before show time.

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Whether one considers “The Nutcracker” a ballet masterpiece--which many don’t-- or whether they consider Tchaikovsky’s composition one of his better works--which he himself didn’t--is not the point of this seasonal show.

“It gets us in the holiday spirit,” said Monica Galindo, a principal dancer with Channel Islands Ballet, who will perform the roles of the Icicle Fairy and the Dew Drop Fairy in the weekend productions. “Everyone around Christmas thinks of dreams and miracles.”

Which sums up the theme of the more than 100-year-old ballet.

“The Nutcracker” tells the story of a young girl, Clara (who will be played by local high school students Haley Henderson and Katherine Schafer), who is presented with a military-style Nutcracker for Christmas. The Nutcracker comes to life, leads a battalion of toy soldiers to victory against a band of mice, and escorts Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets.

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Galindo, 26, has been involved with “Nutcracker” productions--with Channel Islands Ballet Company and the San Francisco Ballet Company--since she was age 10, when she took on the dual roles of soldier and party guest in the local production. Her visions of sugar plum fairies, however, go back further than that.

“I first saw ‘The Nutcracker’ at Oxnard Civic Auditorium--it was so magical, so real,” said Galindo, who now teaches classical ballet through the Ventura County public schools and at the Channel Islands Ballet School.

“Especially with the younger dancers, you see the excitement in them,” she said. “ ‘The Nutcracker’ gives the dancers here something to look forward to each year.”

Even the older dancers get a kick out of participating in the holiday show, which became a hit in the United States when George Balanchine created a version for the New York City Ballet in 1954.

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“I’ve done shows that have been more demanding,” Galindo said. “But I still get that same nervous tension I did when I was a party [scene] girl.”

Joseph Gutierrez, 31, who plays the Nutcracker in the Channel Islands Ballet production, can empathize. Though his role involves helping the younger dancers feel at ease on stage, he’s anticipating his own share of pre-show jitters.

“Getting on stage, you’re always trying to add something to the performance,” said Gutierrez, a resident of North Hollywood. “I always get nervous.”

Though there are many ballets that are more elaborate, Gutierrez said, “The Nutcracker” has all the makings of a classic piece of storytelling.

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“It’s got battles, fighting, a dream land--it attaches itself to mythology,” he said. “It’s not a mature ballet, but I think the story has legitimacy, which can be presented well, especially for kids. The story is about a hero’s journey: Clara sacrifices her life, really.”

Most of the cast, and likely much of the audience, has grown up with “The Nutcracker’s” repetitive holiday appearances. But for artistic director Boeriu, a native of Romania, it is still something of a novelty.

“In Europe, nobody does it at Christmastime, it’s not this fashionable thing,” said Boeriu, who will be leading her sixth “Nutcracker” production with the Ventura-based company. “I was totally surprised when I came here. I never heard of doing the same show on the same date, year after year.”

Boeriu said the biggest contribution of “The Nutcracker” to ballet in the United States may not be its music or its story or its choreography, but its ability to draw a crowd. “It created an audience from people who might not otherwise be aware of ballet. They saw this and then maybe they went to see ‘Swan Lake,’ ” she said. “For this, if nothing else, we should be grateful to Balanchine for introducing it.”

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BE THERE

The Nutcracker--Runs Friday through Sunday at the Performing Arts Center, 800 Hobson Way, Oxnard. Call (805) 648-4430 or (805) 486-2424 for tickets and times. At Lancaster Performing Arts Center, 750 W. Lancaster Blvd., Dec. 13, 8 p.m. and Dec. 14, 2 p.m.; $26 adults, $12 children. Tickets: (805) 723-5950.


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