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A topper and a last chance 

Some holiday traditions reassuringly retain their values: in Rochester The Nutcracker remains a pleasure and an artistic highlight and keeps getting better. Artistic director Jamey Leverett reports that the 18-year-old Rochester City Ballet is dancing at its best to date, and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra reportedly sounds splendid in its 82nd season, playing in the elaborately renovated Eastman Theatre.

This year's Nutcracker is a topper and a last chance. Presented by Time Warner Cable, it's the largest ever, with 160 local community children participating, and RCB's largest cast --- 247 performers! But we can see this much-loved version with its magical Christmas Spirit literally flying overhead one more time, because a completely new Nutcracker is in the works for next year.

That's 247 onstage, by the way. Offstage, Tchaikovsky's gorgeous score will be played by the RPO, conducted by Michael Butterman; and next to the orchestra the Bach Children's Chorus, directed by Karla Krogstad, will add musical magic to the Snow Scene. It all adds up to one of the grandest artistic events of the year.

Rochester's is an impressive example, but many American cities celebrate the season with Nutcrackers. Oddly, although the work is Russian in origin and based on a German fairy tale, this is truly an American phenomenon. England and some other countries have begun to copy our Christmas tradition, but it started here.

I've seen several Nutcrackers in Russia, performed in spring and summer. But it's a perfect winter holiday show, since the ballet begins with a Christmas party that grows into a fantasy about dolls coming to life and children transported to magical kingdoms of snowy beauty and dancing flowers, sweets, and gifts.

Guest stars dancing with our company include Sarah Lane and Karen Uphoff from American Ballet Theatre, alternating in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Lane, an alumna of the company and school, has local fans. She will dance on Saturday evening and in both Sunday performances, partnered by ABT danseur Danny Tidwell. Another young ABT virtuoso, Bo Busby, will be Uphoff's Cavalier. RCB company member Sari Ostrum, who has returned from dancing with ABT, will dance the Dewdrop Fairy.

Two exciting dancers, Jim Nowakowski and Tetsushi Segawa, have bravura solo roles. Nowakowski, now 15, will probably move on after this year from his remarkably vivacious "Fritz," the feisty young son of the party-hosting family. He'll also dance the showy Russian Trepak.

Segawa, currently with the parody ballet company Grandivas, leads the Chinese dance; and Leverett has reworked the dance of the Harlequins as a solo for him. Company balletmaster Brian Norris, who discovered Segawa while guesting with Grandivas, will return in the role of the mysterious Drosselmeyer.

Rochester City Ballet is the best ballet company in western New York State (see news and schedules at www.rcb.org). Founded by the late Timothy M. Draper, the company and its school have developed dancers now employed by major US and European ballet companies. For instance, with ABT in New York, Sarah Lane and Kristi Boone, another former RCB ballerina, recently danced the principal roles in Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet VIII, both of them winning kudos in The New York Times' review.

Jamey Leverett has contributed to the more than 20 ballets developed by RCB. In April her work of tribute to Draper, Pedestal, will be performed by company members at the French Institute's Florence Gould Hall in New York City; it was chosen for the Ballet Builders Showcase there. This coming spring will bring a revival in Rochester of RCB's full-length ballet, Cinderella.

The Nutcracker, music by Peter I. Tchaikovsky, choreography by Timothy M. Draper and Jamey Leverett after Petipa. The Rochester City Ballet and the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Michael Butterman at Eastman Theatre, 26 Gibbs Street, Friday, November 26, through Sunday, November 28, at 2 pm and 7 pm. Tickets $22 to $52, discounts with Wegmans Shoppers Card. www.rpo.org,454-2100.

Speaking of The Nutcracker, Rochester City Ballet

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