& & by Andrea Palpant & & & &

The strains of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Ballet have become as synonymous with Christmas as Rudolph's shiny red proboscis and Santa's three-syllable chuckle. No matter where you live, chances are a production of The Nutcracker is coming your way, and if it's Dance Theatre Northwest's original ballet, The Toy Shelf, you're after, it's back as well. Let the beauty and grace of dance give you a few moments' respite during this busy and hectic season.

& & Alberta Ballet & & & &

Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, live dancers will be seen gracing the window of downtown's Crescent Court. Ballerinas from The Nutcracker will pirouette and plie behind glass to advertise for the upcoming December event.

"They used to do this 15 years ago at Nordstrom," says Annie Matlow, marketing director for the Spokane Symphony. "It was an incredible hit."

The live display is only a glimpse of the gala to come. At the Spokane Opera House Dec. 1-3, the Spokane Symphony will be joined by the Alberta Ballet for their annual performance of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker.

"This is a holiday tradition in Spokane," says Matlow. "The Spokane Symphony has been doing The Nutcracker for 21 years, and this will be the

10th consecutive year with the Alberta Ballet."

This season's performance features dazzling new choreography by Mikko Nissinen, artistic director for Alberta Ballet, who brings a neoclassical approach to the company's repertoire. The score will be directed by guest conductor Earl Stafford. Stafford currently holds positions as music director for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and artistic director of the Saskatoon Symphony.

"This is an opportunity for the symphony to have wonderful music and wonderful dance at the same time," says Matlow. "The great thing is that the Alberta Ballet comes in with their lead dancers, their costumes, their choreographer and then they use 50 local dancers. These kids were selected by audition back in September, and they've been practicing and building to this point. It will be the event of a lifetime for these kids."

Although the basic storyline never changes, Tchaikovsky's tale of sugar plum fairies and mice kings never fails to lose its footing as a Christmas holiday tradition.

"Even if you've seen The Nutcracker many years," says Matlow, "it isn't something that gets old."

& & & lt;i & The Nutcracker runs Friday, Dec. 1, at 7:30 pm, Saturday, Dec. 2, at 2 and 7:30 pm, and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 2 pm at the Spokane Opera House. Tickets: $12-$33. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &

& & Eugene Ballet & & & &

The Alberta Ballet won't be the only troupe prancing to Tchaikovsky this holiday season. Based out of Oregon since 1978, the Eugene Ballet will take to the stage in Pullman's Beasley Coliseum and at Lewiston High School in Idaho. The shows promise a variety of surprises.

"About three years ago, all the sets and costumes were redesigned by an artist in the Disney Studio," says Micki Panttaja, executive director of Festival Dance and Performance Arts. The company is a nonprofit, community-based organization that runs four dance academies and presents the Great Performances Series every year, of which The Nutcracker events are a part.

"Mother Ginger is a sunflower with ladybugs under her skirt this year, and the mice are pirate mice," says Panttaja. "It's totally redone, so it's visually spectacular."

The Great Performance Series provides opportunities for more than 80 dance academy students -- varying from age 8 to high school seniors -- to perform with the professional dance companies.

"So many ballerinas talk about how they were inspired when they were 5 or whatever, when they went to see The Nutcracker," says Panttaja. "So not only is the event a great family activity for the holiday, but it's inspiring for young people in the audience as well."

& & The Eugene Ballet's Nutcracker is Saturday, Dec. 2, at 7 pm at Lewiston High School, and Sunday, Dec. 3, at 7 pm at Beasley Coliseum on the WSU campus in Pullman. Tickets: $8-$28. Call: 325-SEAT or (208) 883-3267. & & & &

& & Ballet Idaho & & & &

A tangent of the Eugene Ballet Company, Ballet Idaho will take a crack at a re-envisioned version of Tchaikovsky's ballet on Dec. 4 in Sandpoint.

"Toni Pimble, artistic director for Ballet Idaho, calls it 'The New Nutcracker,' " says Deanna Heath, director of the Pend Oreille Arts Council. "Her goal was to redevelop the major aspects of the ballet to appeal to a child's sense of fantasy."

Like most Nutcracker casts, the large group of dancers includes a group of local community children.

"The baby mice, the angels, the ladybugs and Clara's friends will all be played by local young people," says Heath. "They auditioned for a representative from Ballet Idaho and have been rehearsing with Laura Buck."

A local dance director, Buck heads up Sandpoint's Studio One Dance Academy.

The event, which draws people from Coeur d'Alene, Spokane and other areas of the Inland Northwest, is an annual tradition in Sandpoint.

"It's always a sellout," says Heath. "People look forward to it every year, and to have an outstanding group like Ballet Idaho is always wonderful."

& & The Nutcracker, presented by Ballet Idaho, is at the Panida Theater in Sandpoint on Monday, Dec. 4, at 7:30 pm. Tickets: $10-$18. Call: (208) 263-6139. & & & &

& & Dance Theatre Northwest & & & &

What's the best thing about Christmas? You got it -- toys! Dance Theatre Northwest reprises its popular holiday dance drama, The Toy Shelf, on Sunday Dec. 10, at The Met. The story is a simple tale of a toy store break-in put to rights by the resident toys -- yet it offers many parts for the young dancers of Dance Theatre Northwest. Bears, dolls and all sorts of storybook characters come to life and try to put the store in order -- with comic results.

As in last year's show, Jim Thomas from the Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre returns as the shopkeeper, and Dennis Haney is once again the onstage narrator. Michael Muzatko plays the Captain of the Guard and Peter, from Peter and the Wolf. Both performances of The Toy Shelf will be interpreted for hearing-impaired audience members.

& & & lt;i & The Toy Shelf has two performances at The Met on Sunday, Dec. 10, at 2 and 7 pm. Tickets: $12; $6 children and seniors. Call: 325-SEAT. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &