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Wednesday, December 4, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Keeping 'Nutcracker' in the family

Times Snohomish County bureau

EDMONDS — Viktoria Titova's face lights up like the child she once was when she thinks about her first "Nutcracker."

She was 10."It was magic," she said. "I remember when I was a little girl — it was my favorite music. You feel it, and right before your eyes, you have that wonderful Christmas tree."

The ballet (and her older sister) are why she became a ballerina, with a noted career at Moscow's Bolshoi Ballet. She is now the artistic director of Ballet Bellevue.

Titova, who moved to the United States in 1997, is in her fourth year as the Sugar Plum Fairy in "The Nutcracker" for the Olympic Ballet Theatre. With Daniel Wilkins as her Cavalier, she's rehearsing the spirited, big finale set to Tchaikovsky's powerful score.

In 21 years, a generation has grown up with the Olympic Ballet's "Nutcracker."

Set at a grand Christmas party, it opens with Herr Drosselmeyer, an intriguing, eccentric toy maker who gives Clara, the host's daughter, a nutcracker doll. That night, she falls asleep under the Christmas tree. In her dream, the tree grows to monumental heights. Mice come out of the woodwork and battle soldiers with swords and cannons. Clara saves Nutcracker, who takes her on a sleigh to exotic worlds such as the Land of Snow.

Students graduate from buffoons and mice to corps members and soloists, and the production is a great blend of talents as well as a visual treat: six little children scampering out from under the skirts of Mother Ginger, a mock battle with nine Russian youths in the soldier scene, and strong dancing from the ensemble and soloists.

But there'll be a different Herr Drosselmeyer in the Olympic Ballet's "Nutcracker" this year. John Yingling, a longtime favorite in the part, replaces John Wilkins, choreographer and co-artistic director of the Edmonds-based ballet with his wife, Helen.

Wilkins has battled brain cancer for the past two years. He will continue to direct the production despite rounds of chemotherapy and radiation.

"I've had some wonderful feedback from my dancers as I've gone through the chemotherapy and all this kind of stuff," he said recently.

"They've been absolutely wonderful. I was at the doctor's, and he asked me what I want to do, and I said, 'I just want to be surrounded by the people I love.' And my dancers are a big part of that."

Daniel Wilkins, the couple's son, has been acting as associate artistic director for the holiday show, rehearsing the company in addition to other faculty. The tall dancer has his own modern-dance company in New York, but he's grown up with "The Nutcracker." And he appreciates its message, especially at this time in his family's life.

" 'The Nutcracker' is a big example of the wealth of the family, and support, and what you can achieve when you have a beautiful vision of your reality," he said.

"There's something very approachable about his 'Nutcracker,' " Wilkins said of his father's work.

Wilkins, trained at the School of American Ballet and the School of San Francisco Ballet, and Titova make quite a couple, gracious hosts to Clara's entrance to the magical land.

"I'm the ultimate gentleman; she's the ultimate lady," he said. "It's the idealized vision of love."

Diane Wright: 425-745-7815 or dwright@seattletimes.com.

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