ST PETERSBURG, Russia (Reuters) - When the curtain rises for "The Nutcracker" at St Petersburg's Mikhailovsky Theatre, it is the culmination of hundreds of hours of toil and sweat by dancers, costume makers, set designers and musicians.
It appears to have paid off. At a recent matinee performance, children looked on wide-eyed as the evil Mouse King did his worst and the Sugar Plum Fairy wowed the capacity audience with a legendary pas de deux that dancers have performed since the first rendition of the ballet in 1892.
A Reuters photo essay on the production - by Spanish choreographer Nacho Duato, with French stage designer Jerome Kaplan assisting with choreography - lifts the curtain on the backstage preparations.
Found at reut.rs/1OjPlpM it runs the gamut from a painter touching up scenery to a violinist practicing and ballerina Valeria Zapasnikova leaping in a workout.
"Nacho Duato has created a real fairy tale and a beautiful ballet," Leonid Sarafanov, principal male dancer at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, told Reuters. "I am always happy to rehearse and perform his choreography."
The production, meanwhile, is a clear demonstration of the global appeal of the Christmas classic.
For it is not just in Russia - where dance appeals to fans young and old from many economic backgrounds - that the ballet continues to draw crowds more than a century after Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote the score.
In New York, for example, "The Hip Hop Nutcracker" includes the rapper Kurtis Blow, while a more traditional production by English National Ballet is performed at The Coliseum in London’s West End.
"It's magical, a typical fairy-tale ballet," Barry Drummond, a dancer with the English National Ballet, who plays roles including the older Freddie, told Reuters. “I could go and watch it again and again."
Drummond, who started to dance aged 11, first saw The Nutcracker - sometimes billed as simply Nutcracker - about five years later.
"It was two hours of being taken somewhere completely different,” he recalls. "That's very special at Christmas."
Wherever The Nutcracker is staged, from Los Angeles to Melbourne via Tokyo, the performance does not just happen. The entire dance troupe at the Mikhailovsky started one day of painstaking preparation with a dance class even before formal rehearsals begin, which continued beyond 9 p.m.
"It's extremely demanding and requires a huge amount of stamina," says Drummond at the English National Ballet.
At the theater in St Petersburg, Zhanna Ayupova, was repetiteur, or rehearsal director.
"From time to time (she) tried to overcome my strong character and turn me into a delicate and fragile girl," Valeria Zapasnikova, soloist at the Mikhailovsky Theatre, told Reuters.
“The role of Masha has become a great pleasure for me,” she says, referring to the affectionate name given in Russia to the character Clara. “This is another milestone in my professional development.”
Among the rewards for all the rehearsals and a long string of performances of The Nutcracker is helping to preserve an age-old ballet tradition, Drummond in London says.
"When you take your call at the end, all the hard work is absolutely worth it."
Writing by Brian McGee Editing by Jeremy Gaunt