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A holiday favourite

Alberta Ballet adds zest to Tchaikovsky classic


What: Alberta Ballet's The Nutcracker, with Victoria Symphony

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Where: Royal Theatre

Tickets: $76 to $43, $15 discount for children 12 and under. Call 250-386-6121 or toll-free 1-888-717-6121.

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Nicole Caron can hardly wait to step on stage and begin dancing in Alberta Ballet's splashy new production of The Nutcracker, which has its Canadian premiere here tomorrow.

During four performances at the Royal Theatre, the Vancouver-born dancer will portray several characters -- the Ballerina Doll, a Snowflake, the Spanish Dancer and a Flower -- but what excites her most is the thought of dancing in gorgeous, new, custom-fitted costumes.

"It's really exciting," she said in an interview from Calgary. "The costumes and headdresses are just amazing, and instead of having 10 rows of bars to move across, I will have just one."

She was referring to the rows and rows of hooks-and-eyes that are commonplace on costumes that have been used over and over by a series of dancers of diverse shapes and sizes. Caron, who has danced in Alberta Ballet's Nutcracker for six years, has always worn a variety of 14-year-old costumes that were created for the show when it was first launched.

Not anymore.

This production is brand new -- from sets, scrims and sleigh, to tutus, choreography and Cossack rats.

It's the biggest, most expensive production ever created by Alberta Ballet, with costumes and sets designed by Emmy Award-winning designer Zack Brown of New York.

"This Nutcracker cost $1.5 million and is new in every way, except for the music," said choreographer Edmund Stripe, who added that no one would think of messing with Tchaikovsky's composition.

When developing his new concept, the first thing Stripe did was look for a brilliant new designer. "Once Zack Brown's portfolio arrived, there was no turning back. Inside were the most amazing designs."

Brown has designed sets and costumes for more than 150 dance, musical, opera, theatre and television shows, and for this production each garment is a handmade, one-of-a-kind piece. Some have taken up to five months to create, and more than 60 people in shops across North America have been working on the production.

The new ballet is set in Imperial Russia, not Germany as is traditional, Stripe said.

"Placing it around the turn of the century gave us a fantastic opportunity to show off the opulence and decadence of pre-revolutionary times and gave us great scope for design and originality. The amount of detail and design Zack has used is staggering. It really takes your breath away."

The Russian theme was a launch-pad for choreography, too. "I researched a few social dances of the times, like the quadrille, which was done on very formal social occasions and was very, very simple. I kept it that way in the party scene, so it would build up to the real ballet in Act 1."

The London-born ballet master, who also created the new Alice in Wonderland for Alberta Ballet in 2006, said his latest creation is technically challenging. "Anyone who knows ballet will know how hard these guys are working, but it should look easy, so it can entertain, enchant and delight."

One dance that he only "tweaked" was the famous pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, but other sections are new.

"This whole ballet certainly has been one of the biggest challenges of my career, with an awful lot of responsibility and expectations," said Stripe, 47, who created his first dance at 16 while studying at the Royal Ballet School in England. His first commissioned piece came 25 years ago and this is his fifth for Alberta Ballet.

Nutcracker has a special place in his heart because he first danced it in a Rudolf Nureyev production of the early 1970s, with the Royal Ballet.

"What an impression his animalism and athleticism had on me. He just ate the stage and moved like a demon. I try to pass that on to my dancers."

The ballet is brought here by Dance Victoria and will be accompanied by the Victoria Symphony.