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Alexandra MacDonald, Andreas Kaas and Flix Paquet are seen in The Nutcracker.

Aleksandar Antonijevic

In 1954, New York Times dance critic John Martin advised audiences to show up for Balanchine's new production of The Nutcracker at about 10 o'clock, when the stage would finally be free of children. Critics in 1892 St. Petersburg felt similarly; the Tchaikovsky/Marius Petipa collaboration was largely dismissed as a ballet performed by children for children, shamelessly catering to sugary tastes.

But I have an enduring soft spot for this behemoth ritual of the Christmas season, now opening in hundreds of incarnations across North America. (Nutcracker mania doesn't exist the same way in Europe – go figure.)

My tenderness isn't just for Peter Tchaikovsky's score, a stirring and remarkably varied work, but for the transportive scenarios that give us silhouetted characters and a beautiful sense of place. James Kudelka's version, which the National Ballet of Canada is presenting this month for the 21st time, sets the story of a Christmas Eve dream in czarist Russia. It's a choice that makes music and context cohere, and lets Kudelka exhume folkloric undertones from Tchaikovsky and inject them into the dancing.

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The music falls on the easy-listening side of the composer's oeuvre; it's full of big melodies that want to tell us how they feel. While the catchy overture is probably the ballet's most replayed part, I tend to find the music gets more interesting near the end of Act 1. For me, the turning point is the Midnight/Christmas tree sequence. Misha (Simon Adamson De Luca) and Marie (Sophie Alexander) are in their respective beds after an evening of partying when we start hearing the lush, symphonic crescendo that is so characteristic of Tchaikovsky, melodies textured with deep feeling. From there, we get harp arpeggios, eerie clarinet solos, staccato castanets, culminating in the breathtaking stretch of music that accompanies the Act 2 pas de deux. I've always thought that Tchaikovsky's genius lies in his ability to invent new moods.

After a long first act of country dancing, skating bears and warrior mice, the dancing of note begins in Scene 3, when the stage becomes a bare, silvery landscape and the Snow Queen (Alexandra MacDonald) performs a pas de trois with Brent Parolin and Nan Wang. They're joined by a corps of Snow Maidens who glide in and out of fluid configurations, while snowflakes fall from the rafters. Kudelka has the dancers cluster and vanish with the ephemerality of snow itself; it's a lovely montage of shimmering disappearances.

Watching MacDonald as the leader, I found myself trying to analyze what makes her so intriguing as a performer. There's no separation of powers in her dancing. Her pure classical lines and refined (but never too modest) port de bras seems to flow from the same source as her solidity, her high legs and powerful turns. She always appears incredibly connected to whatever it is she's doing, so that we get the sense she's undergoing something up there – revealing instead of performing.

There were other strong performances by way of the two leads: first-soloist Skylar Campbell as Peter/The Nutcracker and principal Jillian Vanstone as the Sugar Plum Fairy. As a dancer, Campbell has an energetic, boyish presence that complements his fine turns and dynamic jumps. Vanstone is a clean and graceful classicist; she was smart to tackle the Sugar Plum Fairy variation with a little extra verve. In fact, Kudelka's version of the famous variation may be better thought of as a character piece than a straightforward classical solo, in the sense that it allows more room for the dancer to play with the flickering, postured feel of the choreography.

In Kudelka's version, the relationship between the Nutcracker Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy doesn't make all that much sense to me. Despite the little kisses sneaked into the choreography, and despite the shockingly intense music of their pas de deux (my favourite piece in the ballet), Campbell and Vanstone tended to look more like reunited friends eager for a good laugh than lovers.

One of the major changes from the Celia Franca version that the company did for 30 years is that Misha and Marie travel to the Kingdom of Sweets together. This gives the young male dancer more of a role, and lets the siblings build on their highly physical, and funny, squabbling. But I think the production loses a subtle tension in the process. In Franca's version, I remember Clara as little older than Marie, maybe almost on the brink of adolescence and, naturally, a little enamoured with the handsome Nutcracker Prince who leads her – and her alone – through a fantasy world. When the Prince dances with the Sugar Plum Fairy there's a sense not quite of jealousy, but of yearning to grow up and experience love.

And this is what I hear in the surging chords of that exquisite pas de deux: a young girl, hoping.

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The Nutcracker continues at the Four Seasons Centre until Dec. 31.

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