For so many of us, "The Nutcracker" is our first introduction to the ballet, and for this reason remains the favorite. American Repertory Ballet presents the first of four days of performances of "The Nutcracker" at McCarter Theater on Sunday, November 23, with performances at 1 and 4:30 p.m. McCarter performances continue on November 28 through 30, after which the company takes the show to four other major theaters around the state.

ARB artistic director Graham Lustig teamed up with designer Zack Brown for a particularly elegant staging of the familiar favorite. True to tradition, Tchaikovsky’s sparkling score sets the tone for the journey from real life into a fantastical Land of the Sweets.

"We take a traditional story and give it enough of a twist to create a unique interpretation which audiences of New Jersey cannot see anywhere else," says Lustig, who sets his innovative production in an elegant Viennese household at the dawn of the 20th century. "There are roles for children interspersed with members of the ARB company, so it is a true blending of our dance community."

ARB’s "Nutcracker" performances will feature different casts for different locations and includes the participation of almost 200 children. Young dancers Emily Byrne, Jenna Rose Simon, and Kristina Weimer have been selected to dance the featured role of the young girl Marie. Sharing the sparkling role of the grown-up Sugar Plum Fairy will be company principals Mary Barton, Peggy Pettiway, and Rose Sue.

More than 50 roles at each performance are danced by children ages 7 to 17, most students of the schools in the communities where the productions are staged. The highlight of the season is the appearance at the glittering New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark to the live accompaniment of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and the Newark Boys’ Choir; these will be Friday and Saturday, December 5 and 6. An additional bright spot is the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra, which will accompany performances at the Trenton War Memorial on Saturday, December 27.

In St. Petersburg, Russia, where the ballet was born, the original 1892 production of "The Nutcracker" was deemed a theatrical failure and both Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa died without ever knowing they had created a timeless best-seller. The first production outside Russia was in London in 1934 and in America some 10 years later. George Balanchine’s first production for New York City Ballet, based on his own childhood memories of performing it in Russia, was in 1954. His success was such that it has become a staple for companies across the state and the nation.

Today ARB’s opening scene provides a setting for Lustig’s storytelling gifts and Brown’s stylish gowns and party dresses. From a warm, spacious drawing room, a big picture window looks out onto a frozen lake. And while the party scene unfolds indoors, we can also watch a young couple courting and a snowball fight outdoors.

Once the young Marie’s dreams begin, the Viennese influence extends into the ballet’s fantastical characters. The Rat King wears an aristocrat’s velvet robe, decorated with sinuous ropes of gold braid that is based on Viennese court dress of the period. The magical Snow Scene, set within a beautiful frozen silver birch forest, features young dancers dressed as big rotund snowballs who dance playfully with elegant snow maidens .

"`The Nutcracker’ is our holiday gift to our larger community, so we can communicate the joy we take in what we do," says Lustig.

The Nutcracker , American Repertory Ballet, McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787. $28 to $40. Sunday, November 23, 1 and 4:30 p.m.; also Friday and Saturday, November 28 and 29 at 1 and 4:30 p.m.; and Sunday, November 30 at 1 p.m.

NJ Performing Arts Center, Newark, 973-642-0404. With accompaniment by the NJ Symphony Orchestra. $20-$45. Friday, December 5 at 7 p.m.; and Saturday, December 6 at 2 and 7.

State Theater, 15 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 877-782-8311. $12 to $36. Saturday and Sunday, December 20 and 21, at 1 and 4:30 p.m.

Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton, .609-984-8400. With live accompaniment by the Greater Trenton Symphony Orchestra. $22 to $34. Saturday, December 27 at 1 and 4:30 p.m.

Auditions

Pierrot Productions seeks actors for "Deathtrap." Auditions are Saturday and Sunday, December 6 and 7, at noon. Performances will be February 20 to 29 at Kelsey Theater, Mercer County College. For appointment, call 609-658-1233 or E-mail Pierrotinfo@aol.com.

Call for Entries

Princeton Health Care System invites entries of original art and fine crafts by artists with mental or physical disabilities. All work must be for sale. No entry fee. Close to $6,000 in prizes will be awarded. Slides should be submitted by Saturday, December 20. Call 609-497-4211 or E-mail Lois.levy@princetonhcs.org.

Trenton Film Society seeks short films from amateur and professional filmmakers in the greater Mercer County area. Categories include narrative, experimental, animated, documentary and foreign. Submission form is at www.trentonfilmsociety.org. Entries must be postmarked on or before Monday, December 15. $10 entry fee. Call 609-396-6966.

Participate Please

American Red Cross of Central New Jersey seeks volunteers for the new blood donor center, as well as other blood drives in the community. Tasks include paperwork and serving refreshments. The Red Cross also needs a transportation aide to transport blood to Philadelphia. Call Michelle Stoudt, 609-951-2119.

Rutgers Living History Society seeks donations of correspondence, diaries, and photographs that tell the story of our nation during times of war. Materials must be related to Rutgers University or New Jersey residents who participated in World War II, Korean, or Vietnam wars as service personnel or war workers. Call 732-932-8190.

Cognitive Aging Project at the College of New Jersey seeks participants for a study concerning the effects of aging on cognitive function including memory, language, and attention. E-mail cogaging@tcnj.edu for information.

Holiday Donations

Long & Foster seeks new, unwrapped toys for its Annual Toy Drive. Bring donations now through Wednesday, December 17. The Toys for Tots will be given to area Marines to be distributed to children in the region. Long & Foster is at 33 Princeton Hightstown Road. Call 609-275-5101.

Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage is serving as a drop-off location for coats, hats, scarves, and gloves to be donated to HomeFront. Coldwell Banker is at 50 Princeton-Highststown Road. Deadline is Friday, November 21. Call 609-799-8181.

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