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Still kicking at 120: the evolution of The Nutcracker

The Nutcracker celebrates its 120th birthday next year, but the holiday favourite shows no signs of slowing down.

Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the ballet was based on a popular 1816 story by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann. The dance itself got a tepid response in St. Petersburg when it debuted at the Mariinsky Theatre in December, 1892. The score, however, was a hit – even though Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky reportedly loathed composing to Petipa's hyper-detailed instructions.

Today, the ballet has evolved into many variations, but the essential tale remains the same: A young girl's nutcracker doll turns into a prince, and together they embark on a magical journey to the Land of Ice and Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets. Not surprisingly, it has inspired some delightful Canadian productions. Here is a roundup.

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Halifax Dance, Mermaid Theatre and Symphony Nova Scotia

Halifax (until Dec. 17)

Choreographer Leica Hardy's ballet/modern dance version debuted in 1990, based on an adaptation by Hardy and writer/director Graham Whitehead. Set in the dormitory of a Victorian girl's school, it presents Clara as the only student who doesn't go home for Christmas. The kindly janitor gives her a nutcracker doll, while her schoolmates cobble together other gifts which all come alive in her dream, some as spectacular puppets.

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens

Montreal (until Dec. 30)

This beautiful traditional production, set on Les Grands by Fernand Nault in 1964, is the longest-running continuous Nutcracker in the country. The classical ballet, impeccably faithful to the Petipa scenario, is the closest version to the Russian original in Canada. The refurbished François Barbeau costumes, and Peter Horne's lavish sets are both noted for their charm and whimsy.

National Ballet of Canada

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Toronto (until Jan. 3)

James Kudelka's 1995 version is the most sumptuous in Canada, thanks to Santo Loquasto's stunning sets and costumes, which evoke the Russia of Tchaikovsky's own time. Kudelka has created two squabbling siblings, Misha and Marie, who both go on the magical journey with Peter the stable boy, transformed into the Nutcracker Prince. The choreography is trademark Kudelka – fiendishly difficult.

Ballet Jörgen Canada

Ottawa, Centrepointe Theatre (Dec. 17, 18); Ottawa, Shenkman Centre (Dec. 19, 20); Guelph, Ont. (Dec. 22, 23); Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. (Dec. 28); Markham, Ont. (Dec. 30)

Clever is the only way to describe Bengt Jörgen's 2008 Group of Seven Nutcracker which uses paintings by Franklin Carmichael, Tom Thomson and L.L. Fitzgerald as backdrops. Every incident of the Petipa scenario has been translated into Canadiana. The ballet is populated by snowshoes, canoes, beavers and voyageurs in their buckskins and woven sashes. Klara is an immigrant child who has brought her nutcracker doll from home.

Royal Winnipeg Ballet

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Winnipeg (Dec. 21 to 28)

Choreographers Galina Yordanova and Nina Menon transferred their 1999 version to Canada with a prairie perspective. The setting is a stately home on Winnipeg's Wellington Crescent in 1913. The shadow of the coming war looms over the Christmas revelry, but the fun includes a hockey game on a snowy pond, a battle on Ottawa's Parliament Hill, northern lights, Mounties and a dessert-stealing bear.

Alberta Ballet

Calgary (until Dec. 24); Vancouver (Dec. 28 to 31)

Choreographer Edmund Stripe sets his 2008 production in Tchaikovsky's Imperial Russia. Designer Zack Brown's first-act party set is an actual replica of Tchaikovsky's own drawing room. The Land of Snow is the frozen expanse of a Siberian winterscape replete with Arctic wolves and a Snow Tsarina. Gilding the lily is the accompaniment by the Calgary Philharmonic and the Vancouver Symphony.

Canadian Pacific Ballet

Victoria (Dec. 27 to 30)

Choreographer Roberta Taylor uses Tchaikovsky's shorter Nutcracker Suite as music. The production, which debuted in 2004, includes all the major classical ballet numbers from the Petipa/Ivanov original Nutcracker, with an elderly Clara Stahlbaum as narrator to fill in the missing bits. The event also features a Sugar Plum Fair in the lobby featuring sweets from all over the world.

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