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by Ann M. Colford

Choreographer Marius Petipa could not have anticipated that his Nutcracker ballet, which debuted 110 years ago, would become a holiday tradition for audiences half a world away in the 21st century. After its 1892 Russian debut, the ballet -- based on a book by author E.T.A. Hoffman and with the now-familiar score by Tchaikovsky -- would not even make it to American shores for nearly 50 years. But once the story of the little girl and her enchanted toy caught on, there's been no stopping it.

For those unfamiliar with the story, the ballet begins at an elegant Christmas party in an equally elegant home. The family's young daughter, Clara, receives a toy nutcracker as a Christmas gift from Herr Drosselmeyer. Clara cannot bear to part with her beloved nutcracker at bedtime; she creeps back to the Christmas tree after everyone has left for the night, and magical events begin to unfold. After a battle with the evil Mouse King and his minions, the nutcracker transforms into a handsome young man. He and Clara journey to a magical land where they meet dancing snowflakes, waltzing flowers and the Sugar Plum Fairy herself.

Two sparkling productions of the Nutcracker make their annual visits to the Inland Northwest over the next two weekends, just in time to kick off the seasonal festivities. The Spokane Symphony Orchestra welcomes 26 dancers from the Alberta Ballet and Ballet British Columbia for four shows of the holiday confection at the Opera House from Nov. 29-Dec. 1. More than 50 young dancers from the Spokane area, who were selected by audition, will participate. The Nutcracker has been a Spokane Symphony mainstay for more than 20 years now.

Residents of North Idaho and the Palouse maintain their own Nutcracker traditions as the Eugene Ballet returns to the area for two performances at WSU's Beasley Coliseum in Pullman on Sunday, Dec. 8 (at 3 pm and 7 pm) followed by one show at the Panida in Sandpoint on Monday, Dec. 9, at 7:30 pm. In Pullman, students from the Festival Dance Academy will perform with the dancers from Eugene; at the Panida, young dancers from around the Sandpoint region will take part in the performance presented by the Pend Oreille Arts Council. -- Ann M. Colford

The Nutcracker with the Spokane Symphony Orchestra and the Alberta Ballet and Ballet British Columbia * Friday, Nov. 29, at 7:30 pm; Saturday, Nov. 30, at 2 pm and 7:30 pm; Sunday, Dec. 1, at 2 pm * Tickets: $13-$33 * Call: 624-1200 or 325-SEAT * The Nutcracker with the Eugene Ballet * Pullman tickets: $10-$28 * Call: 325-SEAT * Sandpoint tickets: $15-$20 * Call: 208-263-9191

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