Snow and sleigh rides rarely usher in the Christmas spirit in Augusta, so a toy soldier does the honors.
The Augusta Ballet presents The Nutcracker starting at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Imperial Theatre -- a 25-year tradition that signifies yuletide in Augusta.
Zanne Colton, artistic director of the Augusta Ballet, was a dancer in the company's fledgling productions of The Nutcracker when they relied on help from the Atlanta Ballet. "Now we do it all on our own," said Mrs. Colton.
The Nutcracker features 25 adults and 75 children dancing a variety of roles. Many of the dancers, including the leads, trade off roles over the course of seven performances Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, Dec. 4, Saturday, Dec. 5, and Sunday, Dec. 6.
For the uninitiated, The Nutcracker follows the story of Clara (repeat performances by Jessica Cohen and Elizabeth Harrison) and her wooden nutcracker doll, a gift from her godfather Herr Drosselmeyer (Peter Powlus). The doll is damaged by Clara's brother Fritz (played by Olivia Anderson), and then comes to life and forms a toy army to protect his owner against the evil mouse army led by the Mouse King (Lance Borque).
While Augusta Ballet's is the oldest Nutcracker in town, it's not the only one.
The Columbia County-based Augusta Dance Theater will present a shorter version of the Tchaikovsky classic Dec. 19 and 20 at Augusta State University's Maxwell Performing Arts Theatre.
The troupes say they don't compete with each other because they do different versions of the ballet. The Augusta Ballet's is a professional company, whereas the Augusta Dance Theater's is a showcase for Ron Jones Dance Academy students and is geared toward children, said Mrs. Colton.
Likewise, Mr. Jones wife, Kathleen Jones, doesn't think the two companies are vying for the same audience -- but if they are, she thinks people should find time to attend both.
"They might want to come see what we do as an option," she said. "They might want to try both of us."
But competition was on the horizon in March when Leisure Management International, which operates the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center and Bell Auditorium, was entertaining notions of bringing in the Moscow Ballet's touring production.
Fearing it would undermine the Augusta Ballet's Nutcracker, the Greater Augusta Arts Council, which mediates scheduling conflicts for the area's various arts groups, sent a letter to LMI asking them not to book the Moscow Ballet's Nutcracker.
The furor ultimately caused LMI to back off on holding open a spot Nov. 8 at Bell Auditorium for the Moscow Ballet's Nutcracker.
Several months removed from the controversy, this begs the question, is Augusta big enough for more than one Nutcracker?
Some say yes -- others say no.
Because the Augusta Ballet relies on The Nutcracker to fund its other productions of the year, the organization's supporters said the Moscow Ballet would steal its customers. Last year's production brought in $105,000, Mrs. Colton said.
"It's the goose that lays the golden egg," she said. "It definitely does make our season possible."
But Mrs. Jones argued that having a company of the Moscow Ballet's stature performing in town would benefit the cultural fabric of Augusta. "That would have been wonderful to see something of that caliber," she said. "People drive to Atlanta anyway to see (the Atlanta Ballet's) Nutcracker."
But Mrs. Colton said you don't have to go anywhere to see a quality Nutcracker performance. "We feel we offer a very fine Nutcracker compared to other companies of our size and stature," she said.
In any event, there is another Nutcracker production nearby. In Blackville, S.C., the Columbia City Ballet is performing The Nutcracker at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Blackville High School auditorium. For information, call (803) 259-3817.
What: The Augusta Ballet's Nutcracker
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday Dec. 4, 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 5 and 6
Where: Imperial Theatre, 745 Broad St.
How much: $8-$32