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It’s open to interpretation

Josephs is a freelance writer.

In the costume room at Los Angeles Ballet’s Westside headquarters, co-artistic director Thordal Christensen is trying to explain what makes his company’s “Nutcracker” different from every other “Nutcracker.” Opening a huge Tupperware-like container, he extracts a mask of a snarling mouse. “All our mouse heads have different expressions, and some have really evil eyes,” he says with pride.

According to Christensen, “going all out on the costumes” is a mark of the “The Nutcracker” as performed by L.A. Ballet. Yet the company is but one of innumerable North American ballet troupes that consider the Tchaikovsky classic both their bread and butter and a seasonal ritual akin to a Christmas ham or turkey. Meaning: Although that piece of meat had better be on the table every year, its preparation remains open to interpretation and, as a result, traditions develop and strong opinions form.

“You don’t mess with the music or the story,” Christensen says of Tchaikovsky’s score and the original “Nutcracker” plot, based on the 19th century E.T.A. Hoffmann tale of a little girl at Christmastime whose gift of a nutcracker doll turns into a prince and transports her to an enchanted realm. “But every year, I think about ways to tweak it, how to give our production its own life.”

The same can be said for all the artistic directors seeking to carve out a unique “Nutcracker” niche as they contend with an abundance of concurrent community, school and professional productions. Every one of those shows promises a magical and heartwarming experience. This year, moreover, company leaders must also factor in a production at the Music Center by the Kirov Ballet, which has succumbed to the American practice and is opening its version here for a six-performance run beginning Wednesday. (In Russia, “The Nutcracker” is performed year-round.)

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The Kirov, widely considered one of the world’s best ballet companies, will offer a distinctly Russian interpretation, one that adheres to a 1934 version created for the company by choreographer Vasily Vainonen. “This ballet has never been revised, and so it’s a great opportunity for American audiences to see it,” says Sergei Danilian, the Kirov’s spokesman and producer of its North American tours.

Unlike the other, definitely more avant-garde “Nutcracker” in the Kirov’s repertory, which was directed by the artist Mihail Chemiakin and premiered in 2001 to mixed reviews, Vainonen’s version strays little from the original 1892 “Nutcracker,” created by Marius Petipa for the Russian Imperial Ballet. “It is also homey and warm, and character is very important,” Danilian says.

But in the Kirov production, tradition also dictates that Clara is called Masha and that, unlike in the majority of U.S. productions, she be portrayed by an adult ballerina. At the Music Center, three Kirov principals will alternate in the role.

“Masha should definitely be a principal dancer. Vainonen created that role with a high level of technical artistry meant for ballerinas, not children,” Danilian says.

Favoring youth

Having a grown woman play Clara doesn’t sit right with Yvonne Mounsey -- and not just because she runs the pre-professional Westside Ballet Company and has staged some three dozen “Nutcrackers” in which Clara has never been old enough to vote. “The ballet is so charming when Clara is a child, why would you mess with that?” she says.

Mounsey, a former New York City Ballet dancer who appeared as the center Spanish Girl in the premiere of George Balanchine’s now iconic 1954 “Nutcracker,” has loosely based her productions on the San Francisco Ballet’s 1944 version and resists “doing anything that would upset the basic classicism of the ballet. But we do play with the details,” she says.

That’s resulted in several Westside Ballet “Nutcracker” traditions. After the nutcracker-turned-prince has slain the Mouse King, for example, Mounsey has a lone mouse remain onstage crying, “wiping her eyes with her tail. Then she sees the king’s sword and walks off with it as a spotlight shines on her. It makes me cry every time.”

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Another signature touch, Mounsey recalls, stems from a year when she had a number of dancers “who weren’t quite ready to be flowers” in “The Waltz of the Flowers,” so she choreographed a short unison phrase for them to perform after the Arabian dance. “We called it the ‘Candy Cane Dance,’ and it gave more people a chance to perform,” she says. “We use the overture in the music for this, so I apologize to Tchaikovsky. But it’s still his music.”

Although in only its third season, L.A. Ballet has already developed similar “unique little touches” in its “Nutcracker,” says co-artistic director Colleen Neary. In Act 2, for example, the usual “Land of the Sweets” is the “Palace of the Dolls,” where all of Clara’s dolls come to life to dance for her.

More important “is the way we tell the story and how we try to create different levels of contact between characters,” says Christensen.

Production values can also play a significant role in distinguishing one company’s take on the ballet from the next. Los Angeles Ballet, for example, has a set meant to evoke Los Angeles in 1912, while the Kirov’s designs, though by no means mid-century modern, recall the year of their creation, 1954. Then there are companies such as the Long Beach Ballet and Inland Pacific Ballet that aim for a generalized lavishness.

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For David Wilcox, a “Nutcracker” isn’t a “Nutcracker” without a real white Arabian stallion, magic tricks created by famous magicians, a Christmas tree that grows to 97 feet and some good old-fashioned pyrotechnics. “I’m all about making huge theatrical productions and something that also appeals to people who don’t like ballet,” says the artistic director of the Long Beach Ballet and director of more than two dozen “Nutcrackers.”

A fan of Disney and Cirque du Soleil presentations, Wilcox says he will use any means available to illuminate the work. “The ballet is perfect the way it is,” he observes. “But the only thing that will keep ballet alive is if we technologically do whatever it takes to compete with movies and TV.”

Company tradition

As the artistic director of the Inland Pacific Ballet, Victoria Koenig agrees that “our job is to find ways to enhance the excitement, especially for people not conversant with choreography.” Having staged the “Nutcracker” for 14 years, she also has a definite roster of company traditions, including a revolving fireplace that magically becomes a castle, a cannon in the battle scene that shoots what appears to be a puff of smoke, and a throne and an elaborately wreathed Christmas tree decorating the lobby of the Bridges Auditorium in Claremont.

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Most recently, Koenig has been flying in a professional mime from Paris to play Clara’s godfather, Drosselmeyer, who presents her with the nutcracker doll. The mime is “eccentric but not creepy, and he adds a marvelous quality to our show,” she says. “It’s our new tradition.”

Koenig also directs the “Nutty Nutcracker,” an Inland Pacific Ballet tradition since 2004 that will be performed twice this year, offering a dose of comic relief for the “Nutcracker"-ed out. “Our dancers get to cut loose and be zany,” she says, “which creates a spontaneous performance quality that they carry into our traditional ‘Nutcracker.’ ”

Meanwhile, for companies that don’t have an accompanying spoof in their repertory, it seems that the never-ending quest to freshen up a traditional production is in itself a tradition. This year, for example, the Long Beach Ballet production will have not one but two harps in its orchestra and, onstage, guest dancer Haiyan Wu, a principal with Miami City Ballet. “I’m always trying to make it the best production I can so I never get bored,” says Wilcox.

Mounsey, who operates on a more modest budget, remembers the year that one of her associates thought of “a little glitter falling slowly at the end of the show, as the curtain closes. It’s the little things like that which make the production better.”

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At age 89, Mounsey, a self-described “complete bunhead,” also has a “Nutcracker” tradition all her own. As she begins putting together every new production, she says, “I tell myself, ‘This is the last one.’ But then we start rehearsing, and I just love every minute of it. So then I tell myself, ‘You know you love this, so stop telling yourself you’re not going to do it next year.’ This happens every year.”

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calendar@latimes.com

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A ‘Nutcracker’ sampler

What: Kirov Ballet

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

When: Wednesday through next Sunday

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Price: $30 to $120

Contact: www.musiccenter.org/events/dance.html.

What: Los Angeles Ballet

Where: Royce Hall, UCLA; and Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center

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When: Saturday, next Sunday;

Dec. 27-28

Price: $30 to $95

Contact: www.losangelesballet.org/html/performances.htm.

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What: Westside Ballet

Where: Wadsworth Theatre

When: Today

Price: $26

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Contact: www.westsideballet.com/nutcracker.html.

What: Long Beach Ballet

Where: Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

When: Saturday and next Sunday

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Price: $20 to $42

Contact: www.longbeachballet.com/nutcracker.html.

What: Inland Pacific Ballet

Where: Bridges Auditorium, Claremont Colleges

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When: Through next Sunday

Price: $13 to $48.

Contact: www.ipballet.org/index.php


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