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Putting the Icing on a Yule Classic : Ice show: 'Nutcracker' scores a gold with Peggy Fleming and other Olympic stars lacing up for the holiday perennial.

December 01, 1995|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Amid the myriad ballet productions of Tchaikovsky's Christmas classic, the "Nutcracker," comes a retelling for the frozen stage. "Nutcracker on Ice" kicks off a 21-city U.S. tour tonight at The Pond of Anaheim.

Having begun two years ago as a theater production--which is also touring this season--the arena version of "Nutcracker on Ice" premiered last season. This year's edition stars 1968 Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming as the Sugar Plum Fairy, reigning U.S. ladies champion and world bronze medalist Nicole Bobek as Clara, current U.S. men's champion and world silver medalist Todd Eldredge as the Nutcracker Prince, and Olympic silver medalist (in both '84 and '88) Brian Orser as Clara's godfather Drosselmeyer.

Producer Barry Mendelson scored somewhat of a coup in signing Fleming, who works as a commentator for ABC Sports but rarely performs.

"I had committed to doing 'Skates of Gold,' [an exhibition last month featuring Olympic champions], so I thought as long as I was doing that, I may as well do other things," says Fleming, by car phone from Detroit after a "Nutcracker" rehearsal. "I pick up choreography pretty well--I go to aerobics, and I work out five days a week, which helps keep your mind fresh in remembering choreography."

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The previous "Nutcracker" companies featured only professional skaters. But thanks to rule changes within the sport over the last few years, competitors can now perform with the pros--and collect lucrative salaries--while remaining eligible for national, world and Olympic competitions. Fleming, 47, thus finds herself gliding and spinning with skaters who were not even born when she won her Olympic gold; Eldredge is 24 and Bobek, 18, the same age as Fleming's oldest son.

"I'm not 20 any more. I'm not trying to compete with the younger ones," she says with a laugh. "I think it's wonderful to still be out there, expressing yourself. It feels good. It's a challenge. Sometimes I feel like their mom, sometimes like one of them. It's a real comfortable feeling for me."

Fleming's numbers have been reworked by show choreographers Robert Wagenhoffer and Simone Grigorescu, says Mendelson, to reflect her artistic style; last year's Sugar Plum Fairy Rory Flack Burghart was more athletic and also doubled as the Snow Queen. The show is also utilizing more of the ice surface this time around and will include more choreographed movement of the oversized props, particularly in the fanciful "Candyland" segment.

One consideration unique to this production is the contractual stipulation that Bobek and Eldredge get two hours of daily ice time to prepare to defend their titles at the National Championships in San Jose just two weeks after the close of the tour. Their coach, Richard Callaghan, is accompanying them on the road.

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Bobek, on the phone following a pro-am competition in Philadelphia, says that performing in "Nutcracker" will help her at nationals. "I feel I can learn a lot from Peggy," she says. "And I think that being in front of an audience so much will help my nerves."

With "Nutcrackers" abounding at this time of year, what can an icy version offer audiences?

"We've put two popular mediums together, Mendelson says. "There's the traditional spirit of Christmas on the ice . . . and there is the movement. When you see this in a theater, you're looking from left to right. Here, you're looking at a moving 360-degree piece. 'The Nutcracker' is considered a static piece. So the movement enhances the work."

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"Nutcracker on Ice" today at 8 p.m. at The Pond, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim. $25-$35. (714) 704-2400.

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