Southwest Nutcracker Spotlight

Photo: Cecelia Marshall

Young ballerinas rehearse their "dulce" roles for a performance of "A Southwest Nutcracker" with Tucson Regional Ballet Company.

Just in time for the holiday season, the Tucson Regional Ballet Company offers its own unique version of the traditional "Nutcracker" ballet.

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Instead of tin soldiers and sugar plum fairies, the annual “A Southwest Nutcracker” has a distinctly Arizona flavor: chili peppers, piñatas and Native American princesses.

The ballet uses the original Tchaikovsky score - “Waltz of the Flowers” - and other favorite holiday melodies, but a different setting.

Set in the 1880s, it tells the story of Maria and her journey with the nutcracker through historical Tucson and the Southwest. The ballet captures the unique history of Arizona.

This version of the ballet was created by Linda Walker, the executive director for the Tucson Regional Ballet Company. Walker said she has always enjoyed the classical Nutcracker because it’s family-oriented and inspires people to see other ballets, she said.

“But I felt a twist, living here in Arizona, would just be a nice little change,” she said.

The audience may notice some of the characters are different, said Jeffrey Graham-Hughes, the artistic director for the ballet company.

“What is really fun about the Southwestern Nutcracker is the sugar plum fairy is now the prickly pear fairy and instead of being the cavalier, it’s the caballero,” he said.

Graham-Hughes has previously worked on several Nutcrackers around the world. But he said “A Southwest Nutcracker” is unlike anything he’s ever done.

“It really goes right down to the core of the Southwest and incorporates the Spanish heritage that’s here in Tucson into the story line and down to the detail of renaming the characters, which really does give it a whole other element,” he said.

The company dancers are primarily high school and college students. They started rehearsals the last week of August. All dancers take classes from Walker’s academy of ballet.

Paetia Mechler started out at Walker’s academy when she was 7 years old and grew up performing in “A Southwest Nutcracker.” Mechler is now a dance major at the University of Arizona.

“I started out as a coyote, which is the equivalent of the little mice in the normal Nutcrackers, and I was only that for one year,” Mechler said.

“I just made my way up through the ranks and this year I am going to be the mother in the party scene and then I am the mama piñata, which is the lady with the big skirt who is sometime played by a man, so it’s a little goofy,” she said.

Another UA dancer is Forest James, who has been performing “A Southwest Nutcracker” for the past two years. This year he will be performing a variety of characters, including King Coyote.

“I can interact with the little coyotes and I can provide a comedy relief to the story,” he said.

Putting together the Nutcracker--Southwestern or not--is a lot of hard work. The dancers get calloused and blistered feet. Some ballerinas, like Mechler, may get sick of hearing the same music replayed over and over.

“Ballet is sort of a love-hate relationship all the time,” said Mechler. “By the time you are a senior, if you hear the music of the Nutcracker, especially ‘Waltz of the Flowers,’ in department stores, it’s just so annoying.”

But, she said, after having a year or so off, she realizes how much fun it is.

“A Southwest Nutcracker” has grown over the years. It moved from the intimate Leo Rich Theater to the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall, where they sell out almost every performance.

Other ballet companies across the country have also adapted "The Nutcracker" to a certain time period or city’s history. But none other can claim to incorporate the falling snow on Mt. Lemmon, or a desert dream of chili peppers and desert poppies.