During the three decades that ballerina Karen Gabay danced "The Nutcracker" with Ballet San Jose, Tchaikovsky's glorious score must have penetrated to the core of her being. But over that time, she also must have wondered what she might do, how she might stage the Waltz of the Flowers or the Russian variation.

This year Gabay got the opportunity to realize those musings in a brand new production that runs at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts until Dec. 23. She also joined that still rare breed of women who choreograph major pieces for professional ballet companies.

Gabay is no beginner at making dances. Still, tackling "Nutcracker" was a huge challenge -- and opportunity. Supported by the Symphony Silicon Valley, under the baton of the ballet's new musical director George Daugherty, she gave her home team and the legion of "Nutcracker" lovers, a family-friendly, fresh interpretation of the old tale -- including a new twist.

Like Mark Morris, Gabay went back to E.T.A. Hoffman's fairy tale and gave us the lowdown about a Prince having been turned into a Nutcracker. An ingenious play within the play, hers is pure slapstick, tightly designed and fabulously performed. Akira Takahashi and Peter Hershey stole the show as the ball-bouncing suitors, Nimble and Nye. For those who want more, Gabay included a delightful verse rendition in the printed program.


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Making generous use of Ballet San Jose School students was practical but also emphasized the idea of the training facility being a company's lifeblood.

In the first act, six of these students offered a simple but nicely performed dance for their elders, who included a single grandma (the feisty Keira Schwartz). Introducing some of the stalwart mice early also was an ingenuous narrative device. Even better were the tots emerging from underneath Mother Maxine's (Maximo Califano) hoopskirt. Each took a bow toward a specific cultural tradition.

Advanced students joined the professionals in the Waltz of the Flowers; the former identified as Snow Flurries, the latter as Snow Flakes. (I couldn't tell the difference.) Whether flakes or flurries, they whirled, leapt and flew with a sense of disciplined freedom that was a joy to watch. However, having falling snow and fog share the stage somewhat stretched meteoric credibility.

Also, to have the second act open with the leftover snowstorm made little sense. Neither did those tentative Flower Blossoms and Flower Buds. Students in tandem with professionals can work wonderfully, but not when the former are not ready for the stage.

Gabay's choreography at times is a little thin and needs tighter transitions, but she is a committed storyteller, not afraid of adapting ideas from Mikhail Baryshnikov's first choreography for American Ballet Theatre. Two examples particularly stood out.

Instead of being reunited with her family, Marie is waking up to the realization that one day her dream may become reality. We are left with a girl at the cusp of womanhood. Earlier, in a mime passage, the Prince (Ramon Moreno) introduces Marie (Maria Jacobs-Yu) to the dancers who will perform for her. They become very clearly his gift to her.

The national dances are every "Nutcracker's" balletic highlights. Gabay gave us convincing versions with a feminist touch to some of them.

To have Amy Marie Briones, in pointe shoes, whirl pirouettes at center of her barrel-turning male colleagues was inspired. In the Arabian, the lush Beth Ann Namey and Nutnaree-Sukun courted muscled strongman Califano. The four Spanish dancers' short but fiery music had them in and out with a flip of a skirt and the flourish of an arm -- such a contrast to the Chinese trio whose tiny staccato steps felt like needle pricks.

Moreno and Jacobs-Yu, beautiful together all night long, deserved a grander Grand Pas de Deux. To have them participate in the Waltz of the Flowers, also made what should have been the Ballet's high point, look like an afterthought.

A word about the physical production on loan from American Ballet Theatre, Ballet San Jose's new partner: Theoni V. Aldredge's costumes are fine. But will somebody please give this company a new set?

'the nutcracker'

Ballet San Jose, choreographed by Karen Gabay

Through: Dec. 23
Where: San Jose Center
for the Performing Arts,
255 Almaden Blvd.
Tickets: $30-$105, 408-288-2800, www.balletsj.org