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Real-life cavalier.

Byline: Randi Bjornstad The Register-Guard

Certain things - a Nativity scene, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus himself - always conjure visions of the Christmas season.

"The Nutcracker" also has been a Christmastime staple for years, but maybe never more so than today.

Peter Tchaikovsky's popular ballet, first performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, not only is performed annually by the professional dancers of the Eugene Ballet Company at the Hult Center's Silva Concert Hall - as they will do once again during four performances this weekend - but also in the abbreviated versions performed by children at nursing homes and recitals.

By now, almost everyone knows the story.

The Stahlbaum family is getting ready for a big Christmas Eve party. When the guests arrive, an evening of merriment begins with much dancing and celebration of the season.

The toymaker, Drosselmeyer, arrives with gifts for the children, including a drum for young Fritz and an elaborate Nutcracker figure for his sister, Clara.

Fritz and his friends grab the Nutcracker and toss it back and forth among them, eventually dropping and breaking it. The toymaker bandages it with a handkerchief, and Clara lays her toy in a doll's bed under the Christmas tree.

After the guests leave, she retrieves it and falls asleep next to the tree, holding the Nutcracker. Clara "awakens" at midnight to a frightening scene that includes a battle between an army of mice led by a Mouse King and a group of toy soldiers led by her uniformed Nutcracker.

The battle rages until Clara rescues the cornered Nutcracker and his troops by flinging her slipper at the head of the Mouse King, who is carried away by his fellows.

Clara falls into a swoon at the exertion, the Nutcracker's bed turns into a sleigh, and the Nutcracker becomes a handsome prince. He carries Clara away to a magical land through a snowy forest to the Land of Sweets, where the entire landscape is cake, frosting and candies.

The Sugar Plum Fairy welcomes the couple and throws a huge party in their honor, with dancers portraying musical culture from around the world, from Spanish and Arabian to Chinese and Russian.

After all the other dances, the Sugar Plum Fairy and an equally gorgeous cavalier perform the most spectacular dance of all, and everyone bids Clara and the Nutcracker goodbye.

In the morning, Clara wakes, still lying by the Christmas tree - and still holding the Nutcracker.

An off-stage pas de deux

Of course, the dancers behind the characters in "The Nutcracker" have fantastic stories of their own. As usual this year, the Eugene Ballet Company has two complete casts who share dancing duties.

The Sugar Plum Fairy for the matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday is Heather Wallace. She has been dancing with Eugene Ballet since 2005, when she began as an apprentice.

Wallace, 28, grew up in Ventura, Calif., where her mother "decided to put me in ballet when I was 2 years old," Wallace said.

"She was a musician herself - she plays violin - and I also took piano lessons when I was young, but dance was what I loved most."

By the time she was 9 or 10, "I realized I wanted to be a professional ballet dancer," Wallace said. After graduation from high school, she became a trainee with BalletMet in Columbus, Ohio, where she really began to understand how difficult a dancer career can be.

"For every position that's available, there are probably at least 15 people who are capable of doing the job," Wallace said. "No one ever knows if they will be able to have a career in ballet until they actually get hired."

Wallace's first roles in "The Nutcracker" with the Eugene Ballet were as a guest in the party scene and a soldier mouse in the battle scene.

Wallace's first appearance as Sugar Plum Fairy came last year.

"It's challenging - it's technically demanding and requires a lot of stamina," Wallace said. "But if you really love dancing, it's cool to push yourself and see how far you can go each time."

Unlike lead roles in "Swan Lake" or "Sleeping Beauty," the Sugar Plum Fairy doesn't have a back story. So she and her cavalier have to invent one for themselves.

"There's really no narrative - in the roles, we just live in a fairy kingdom where everything is perfect for us all the time," Wallace said. "We're the king and queen of a perfect world for children and their dreams - that's what we try to portray."

In her own life, Wallace is Sugar Plum Fairy to her real-life cavalier husband, Lance Cpl. Nicolas Solisz. Solisz grew up in Prineville and, before joining the Marine Corps, was a ballroom dance instructor in Klamath Falls.

"We met in 2007 when I was on tour with 'Nutcracker' in Klamath Falls," Wallace said. "Some friends and I wandered out one night in our tour finest - sweats and snow boots - and stumbled onto the dance studio where we were going to have class the next morning."

The owner of the studio showed them the facility, including a stop at an in-progress dance class that Solisz was teaching.

"Nic said his usual partner was out of town that week and asked if any of us ladies would like to dance with him."

She "jumped right in," Wallace recalled, and the two danced together all night.

A week later, when she was back in Boise, where Eugene Ballet was headquartered at the time as Ballet Idaho/Eugene Ballet, "He drove nine hours to take me on our first date."

The couple married in 2010. They most recently spent a week together at Thanksgiving, when he joined her on this year's Eugene Ballet Company tour of "The Nutcracker."

The troupe performed 20 times during 13 stops in four states before returning to Eugene this week for its final performances.

DANCE PREVIEW

The Nutcracker

What: Eugene Ballet perennial production

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

Where: Hult Center, Seventh Avenue and Willamette Street

Tickets: $28 to $53 (hultcenter.org, 541-682-5000)
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Title Annotation:Dance
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 19, 2013
Words:1015
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