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Crack into ballet with seasonal hit

Dance Victoria presents Goh Ballet's Nutcracker When: Friday 7: 30 p.m., Saturday 2 p.m. and 7: 30 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.

Dance Victoria presents Goh Ballet's Nutcracker

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

Where: Royal Theatre

Tickets: $58-$80 regular, $40-60 children 12 and under

For a holiday mainstay, The Nutcracker has stirred up some controversy.

A debate erupted surrounding its relevance three years ago, when Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman wrote, "The Nutcracker's stranglehold is all but squeezing ballet dry."

Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, described how annual presentations of the same show can be tiresome for professional dancers: "A small book could be filled with the onstage and backstage antics that dancers indulge in just to inject a little improvisatory surprise to break up the familiarity of the work," she wrote in an editorial on the show's lasting appeal.

Even at its 1892 première, the critics in St. Petersburg, Russia, were unimpressed. The children annoyed many audience members accustomed to adult-only ballets, and Tchaikovsky apparently called his own score, "infinitely worse than Sleeping Beauty."

Still, The Nutcracker is the bread-and-butter of many-a ballet company. Shows continue to sell out. People who have never been to another ballet attend productions annually like midnight mass.

As for the question of whether it should continue, for Dance Victoria producer Stephen White, it's a no-brainer.

"I think The Nutcracker, since it was first performed on an annual basis beginning in the 1950s in North America, has been a huge gift to the world of ballet," he said. "For one, it introduces a whole new audience, every year, to dance."

As a presentation company, Dance Victoria has been bringing various dance companies into Victoria to perform the classic for years. This weekend, it welcomes Goh Ballet, the Vancouver company associated with Goh Ballet Academy that performed The Nutcracker in Victoria in 2010. The Victoria Symphony accompanies the presentation, with choreography by Anna Marie Holmes. Featured performers are Rachel Foster and Seth Orza.

Though the dance company changes, Dance Victoria sells an average of 4,800 tickets to The Nut-cracker each year, according to White.

"And I would say the majority of those tickets are people who are coming to see dance and hear live music for the first time with their kids," he said. "It's kind of entry-level in terms of ballet."

However, many dance enthusiasts are critical of The Nutcracker for that very reason: As an amabassador for ballet, it may not be the best representation. There are more impressive classical ballets, some say. And if new audiences are turned off by the stereotypical tutus and tiaras, they may not realize the enormous diversity in choreography going on today, especially in the realm of contemporary ballet.

"I totally believe in stretching and expanding the audience experience," said White, whose presentation company regularly brings in contemporary performers, too. "But before you can stretch somebody, you have to bring them through the door."

The large cast also provides opportunities for the community to get involved - children included. This season, 73 youngsters from 15 studios in the region will share the stage with featured dancers like Rachel Foster and Seth Orza.

If some professional dancers today groan at the thought of having to dance The Nutcracker yet again, White suspects there are as many who count it as their introduction to the stage.

"When I talk to professional dancers, they often cite a performance of Nutcracker as something that inspired them to want to be a dancer. And sometimes it's because they participated as kids - as one of the party girls in the first scene - or it's from watching it in the theatre," he said.

And for White, there's something nice about parents bringing their kids to the same ballet they enjoyed as children.

"Tradition and nostalgia are powerful things," he said. "People go and fantasize about a world filled with gorgeous images and costumes, so it's kind of a safe harbour in a stormy world."

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