THE Peninsula Ballet's annual productions of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" have always been excellent, but this year's edition surpasses them all.

Perhaps it is the new artistic director, Michael Lowe, bringing a fresh vision to the organization.

Perhaps it is new ballet master Mario Alonzo, with his elegant exploration of artistic director emeritus Carlos Carvajal's beautiful and keenly honed choreography.

Perhaps it is the casting of remarkable new talent.

Perhaps it is conductor Chris Christensen and his excellent orchestra proving that canned music is incapable of replacing the resonance of a live orchestra and the immediacy of interplay with the dancers.

Or perhaps it is all of these — plus a favorable alignment of the stars.

Whatever the reasons, this is a production to remember, punctuated by surprises in individual performances.

As we all know, the first scene introduces Dr. Drosselmeyer (ever-reliable Dudley Brooks), who makes toys and is reputed to be a magician, and his nephew/assistant Johann (Never Navarro-Aguilar). And there comes the first surprise.

Navarro-Aguilar, from Peru, is not just a supporting dancer. He is world class. His graceful movements, agility and leaps dazzle and his presence in any scene is guaranteed to draw the eye.

Bearing gifts and two dancing dolls (excellent Ildiko Polony and Elizabeth Farotte), the two arrive at the annual Christmas parties at the home of the Silberhaus' and their two children, heroine Clara (Jamie Ryan alternating with Natalia Barulich) and her mischievous brother, Fritz (Brendon Crosson).


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Young Crosson, a versatile 14-year-old from San Francisco, is the second to impress. He has all the right stuff to assure a successful career in dance.

Drosselmeyer gives a gift of a nutcracker in the shape of a soldier to 12-year-old Clara, his goddaughter. But irrepressible Fritz breaks it. Drosselmeyer repairs the doll and Clara puts it to bed beneath the Christmas tree.

But Clara returns to the darkened living room, dominated by its dazzling Christmas tree, to retrieve her injured nutcracker doll. As the clock strikes 12 a magical world appears in which the Nutcracker and his toy soldiers fight the invading Mouse King and his troops.

After the battle, the Nutcracker rises as a young prince who looks remarkably like Johann. In gratitude he takes her on a fabulous journey where they first meet the Snow Queen (Terrin McGee) and the Snow King (Jacob Kreamer), who engage in the third most impressive event in the ballet, an indescribably beautiful pas de deux.

And there was a fourth surprise: the Snow Flurries, a beautiful sequence with nine dancers in a glittering vision of white upon white, complete with snow.

In the second act come the famous dances that Clara and the Prince watch in this magical kingdom. Here other outstanding dancers have their moments on stage, including elegant Jose Carlos Asencios, another remarkable dancer from Peru, who performs in tandem with Danielle Schmidt in "Spanish Chocolate."

But "Arabian Coffee" may have provided my biggest surprise. C.J. Blankenship, an award-winning actor and singer, shows up here as a ballet dancer. He looks like a football halfback with the build of a muscle-bound Greek statue, the direct opposite of the stereotypical image of a leading male dancer.

But he almost stole the show in this seductive dance sequence, with his smoothly controlled erotic movements and his effortless lifts.

Then on to "Candy Ribbons," where James and Kevin Shee, brothers from Portland, Ore., had the audience riveted during their warp speed, perfectly coordinated turns and jumps.

Finally, two more pas de deux need to be credited: Coreen Danaher and Kreamer as the Rose and Rose Consort in the "Waltz of the Flowers," and Brittney Wirth and Kendall Eric Sparks as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier; all executed their variations exquisitely.

- "Nutcracker," by Peninsula Ballet Theatre, is at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, 600 N. Delaware St., San Mateo. Tickets are $12-$45 general, $10-$40 youths and seniors, $8-$35 children. Call (650) 340-9448.