WASHINGTON, December 23, 2011 (AFP) - When "The Nutcracker" comes to US theaters, the two-act ballet that enchants children around the world ushers in the Christmas season, on an equal footing with Santa Claus and decorated fir trees.
"It's just an American tradition... When you hear about 'The Nutcracker,' Christmas is right there," said Barb Wilbur, a teacher in Kennewick, Washington state, who has taken her grandchildren to the show for the past seven years.
From late November, the mice and wooden soldiers that fill Tchaikovsky's ballet are everywhere: in theatres, but also on television, in Christmas storefront displays, games, books and even gift wrapping, coffee mugs and stuffed animals.
On December 13, 560 movie theatres broadcast live a New York City Ballet production, which was screened the next day on television. And the ballet is currently being performed in 121 American cities with a total of 751 different shows, according to a Los Angeles Times count.
The infatuation took off after George Balanchine showcased his 1954 take on the ballet for the New York City Ballet, although the dance spectacular first arrived on US stages in San Francisco 10 years earlier.
Many other interpretations of the ballet adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" story have since graced stages across the United States.
This year alone, Las Vegas saw jazz versions, Philadelphia a Harlem style take with black dancers, Virginia an urban dance, Vermont a hip-hop extravaganza and even an adults-only "Nutcracker Burlesque" has played in Portland, Maine.
Hundreds more local productions have been featured at dance schools, city workshops or end-of-year school shows where children get to dive into the many roles available.
-- 'It's magical' --
For all its success today, the ballet's December 1892 premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg got a less than enthusiastic reception. It was not until the post-World War II period that Tchaikovsky's creation drew a huge following, with countless ballet companies taking on the challenge.
Children -- and parents alike -- delight in the story of young Clara, who receives a painted wooden nutcracker shaped like a soldier for Christmas.
At night, the toy comes to life and fights against the mice until the nutcracker-turned-prince defeats the evil mouse king in a battle and carries the little girl to his magical kingdom far, far away.
At the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre & Academy in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Celina and Rafaela Gutierrez, 13 and 11 years old respectively, have danced the ballet every year for the past six years.
The eldest has climbed up the echelons of the production, which has been performed by the dance school every year since 1989.
"She has played different roles -- a mouse, a soldier, an angel, a Chinese girl, an Arabian coffee performer and, this year, she's starring in the role of the little girl Clara," said proud mother Nicole Gutierrez.
For the past two years, Gutierrez herself has played the role of one of the parents in the ballet, "to be with my girls."
"It's magical. It's Christmas. It's a show that is timed perfectly for the holidays and the girls love the ballet, they know all the roles," she said.
It's also a sure bet for dance companies. In many cases, the production, which attracts a bigger audience than other ballets and usually stays in theaters for twice the amount of time, accounts for half of their annual turnover, according to a Wall Street Journal estimate.
"This is a bond, something we do together," said Wilbur. And she has expanded the tradition by giving each of her grandchildren their own nutcracker with their name and the date to mark every Nutcracker outing.
"I hope they will carry on with it when they get married and have kids and grandkids," she added.