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The spectacle of the season

The Nutcracker season gets into full swing this weekend. First out of the box are a pair of professional productions, generously populated by Tampa Bay area dance students. Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker is part of a 70-city U.S. tour that has performances at the Mahaffey Theater. Principals will be Russian, with more than 100 children from the area filling out the cast as snowflakes, harlequins, mice, angels and party guests. The Moscow Symphony Orchestra will play the score to Tchaikovsky's holiday ballet.

Miami City Ballet returns with its annual production, which has been coming to Ruth Eckerd Hall for more than 15 years, ever since the company's artistic director Edward Villella set out to establish an instant tradition for Florida. The show was underwritten by the state and emulates the fabled George Balanchine version for New York City Ballet. There's a blinking mechanical owl on top of a grandfather clock, a Christmas tree that grows, a pastel fantasy land, a swirling blizzard and so forth. The Florida Orchestra will be in the pit.

In the usual Nutcracker narrative, which is often altered to suit the fancy of choreographers, the young girl Clara (named Marie in the Miami production) receives a toy soldier nutcracker during a Christmas Eve party. Later, in a kind of dream sequence, she triggers the toy's transformation into the Nutcracker Prince by tossing her slipper at the giant Mouse King. Clara and the prince go to the Land of the Sweets, where they're entertained in a series of divertissements by Candy Canes, Mother Comedia and Polichnelles and dancers from many lands.

There is much to be said for hearing Tchaikovsky's music played live, to appreciate all the artful little touches not dulled by familiarity, such as the ominous key change that signals the entrance of scary Uncle Drosselmeyer or the twinkling celesta that introduces the Sugarplum Fairy or the bright trumpet fanfares.

Lavishness has always been part of The Nutcracker, though Tchaikovsky himself had mixed feelings about that.

"My eyes weary from this luxury,'' the composer wrote to his brother on the morning after the debut of the ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892.

There are also a pair of school productions this weekend, and they will have their own charms. More than any theatrical event, The Nutcracker benefits from youthful innocence and sincerity.

The Guilfoil Ballet will include as many as 100 dancers in its staging, with Patricia Storelli and school artistic director Andrew Guilfoil in leading roles, at the Palladium Theater in St. Petersburg. George Callahan will be a guest artist in the American Dance Academy's Nutcracker at Largo Cultural Center, with Jordan Vaal and Gabriela Johnson alternating as the Sugarplum Fairy.

At least three more productions will follow the next week. They include the Orlando Ballet's Nutcracker, with choreography by the late Fernando Bujones, returning for the second season to Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center. Under artistic director Bruce Marks, the company has 28 professional dancers, supplemented by apprentices and trainees. The Orlando Philharmonic will play the score.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

NUTCRACKER NOTES

Where to find the Sugarplum Fairies

Snowflakes and toy soldiers and Sugarplum Fairies are about to reach critical mass. Here's the Nutcracker lineup:

Moscow Ballet, 7:30 p.m. Friday, 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg, $29.50-$45.50, (727) 892-5767; www.mahaffeytheater.com.

Miami City Ballet, 8 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday, Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater, $29.50-$45.50, (727) 791-7400; www.rutheckerdhall.com.

Guilfoil Ballet Theater, 7:30 p.m. Friday, Palladium Theater, St. Petersburg, $16, (727) 822-3590; www.mypalladium.org.

American Dance Academy, 1 and 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Largo Cultural Center, $12-$16, (727) 587-6793; www.largoarts.com.

Orlando Ballet, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 21, 8 p.m. Dec. 22, 2 and 8 p.m. Dec. 23, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Tampa, $18.50-$54.50, (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; www.tbpac.org.

Sarasota Ballet, 7 p.m. Dec. 22, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 23, Van Wezel Hall, Sarasota, $19-$74, (941) 351-8000 or toll-free 1-800-361-8388; www.sarasotaballet.org.

Chocolate Nutcracker, 7:30 p.m. Dec. 22, 1 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23, Mahaffey Theater, St. Petersburg, $27-$47, (727) 892-5767; www.mahaffeytheater.com.

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