A holiday treasure for many, "The Nutcracker" will soon twirl back into the spotlight at Ballet San Jose, but this year it won't be the same old song and dance.
For years, Ballet San Jose annually performed one of the most highly respected "Nutcrackers" in the country, the one choreographed by artistic director Dennis Nahat. But when Nahat parted ways with the troupe, he took his beloved "Nutcracker" with him. So this year, the ballet will introduce a new "Nutcracker" -- a world premiere production choreographed by ballerina Karen Gabay and based on blueprints from its artistic partner, American Ballet Theatre.
"All of us who have been with the company for a long time have a special feeling for the old 'Nutcracker,' " says the candid Gabay, during a break in rehearsals for the new production, which runs Saturday through Dec. 23 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts.
"I can remember the first time we did it, and I have so many fond memories of dancing it year after year. This Christmas, I hope to live up to that standard but also bring something fresh to it."
In her first major choreographing stint for the ballet, Gabay is fine-tuning the narrative and adding more kids -- lots more kids.
A tradition for many Silicon Valley families, "The Nutcracker" is one of the ballet's most popular offerings. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the King of Mice," Tchaikovsky's chestnut ranks as one of the cash cows of the dance world, a show that always shines at the box office. First danced in St. Petersburg in 1892, "Nutcracker" has become a perennial ritual. From its hummable score to its legions of pint-size ballerinas, "Nutcracker" is the dance equivalent of eggnog. It just doesn't feel like Christmas without it.
"What a gift Tchaikovsky gave to the world with his extraordinary music," says Ballet San Jose's ballet master Raymond Rodriguez. "It warms our hearts and fills our souls year after year, what could be better?"
Nahat was widely hailed for his "Nutcracker," which the company has danced since 1985. Not only did he create the ballet from scratch complete with an original libretto and setting but he also often danced the part of Drosselmeyer, the toy-maker.
But when Nahat was ousted from the ballet he cofounded in January, he took his choreography with him. Since his "Nutcracker" became one of the company's signature creations, there is now a lot of pressure on Gabay to rise to the occasion.
"I have really big shoes to fill and I know it," Gabay says with a small sigh. "Dennis is such a creative genius, he has such a mind, but I am hoping audiences will embrace this new version and let it stand on its own."
Certainly no one is a bigger fan of Nahat's ballet than Gabay, who has danced in Ballet San Jose's "Nutcracker" since its local debut. She admits to being daunted by the responsibility but also honored to be tapped for this passing of the torch.
"This is my first major ballet for a big company and that's a bit intimidating," says Gabay, 50, as clusters of little girls stretch and preen in the background. "Dennis' ballet was so beautiful and I loved dancing it, so this is a little bittersweet for me.
"Dennis was a mentor. He's someone I have learned so much from over the years. It's a wonderful opportunity that I am very thankful for, but I also have mixed feelings."
Gabay has been smitten with this ballet since she was 8 years old. Her first time dancing it, she played a bonbon, one of the teeny dancing candies hiding underneath Mother Ginger's skirt. In three decades with Ballet San Jose, she has often starred as the heroine Marie. Her long history with the piece fuels her admiration for it.
"I truly love 'Nutcracker.' I love everything about it. I love the tradition of it. I love watching the families come to the theater," she says, her eyes shining with glee. "I even love the music, which is something most dancers loathe."
She is also fond of the ballet because her daughter Kalena is among the adorable tykes who star in the mouse brigade every year. Though the 10-year old now favors karate over tutus, she still gets a kick out of sharing a stage with her mom. "She has a blue belt in wushu," notes Gabay. "She is definitely not a bunhead."
For the record, Gabay inherited the rights to the framework of American Ballet Theatre's "Nutcracker" because of that company's affiliation with Ballet San Jose. She is drawing largely from that recipe, from set pieces and props to costumes, but she wants to give the story a whole new feel.
"In some ways, this is a lot harder than building a ballet from the ground up because there are parameters that I have to stick to," she says, "but I also want to add my own perspective to it."
Dancer Maria Jacobs-Yu, who now plays Marie, says Gabay's intimate knowledge of the company is the key to her eye as a choreographer.
"Karen has done an amazing job in such a short amount of time creating her masterpiece," the ballerina says. "She has her own flair that is uniquely hers. I have the utmost respect for Karen. She is such gem and we are very lucky to have her guiding us."
Though it would be a shame to give too much away, Gabay will definitely be making her mark on the heartwarmer, which will feature no less than 100 children in addition to 40 company members. Some of the changes she has in mind are a rethinking of the romance, scrapping the candy shop setting and sharpening the narrative. She thinks that being a mother as well as a dancer and choreographer has shaped her vision of the piece.
"I want to make it my own. I want to deepen the love story and answer some of the questions I have always had," she says. "But what I really want is for people to be as entranced by it as I am."
Who: Ballet San Jose
When: Saturday through Dec. 23.
Where: San Jose Center for the Performing Arts, 255 Almaden Blvd.
Tickets: $21-$105; 408-288-2800, www.balletsj.org