In this holiday season, few things illustrate "visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads" as well as the "Nutcracker Ballet," especially when the dancers on stage are accompanied by a full orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's glorious music in the pit below.

This weekend the Civic Dance Center and the Bakersfield Symphony Orchestra will once again create that kind of magic with four performances at Rabobank Theater.

It marks the 35th year of a successful collaboration between the dance company's Cindy Trueblood and John Farrer, the orchestra's music director.

Recently, Trueblood, 61, recalled how the partnership began by virtue of an 8-millimeter film of a "Nutcracker" she had produced in the garage of her parents home in Park Stockdale, a residential community in southwest Bakersfield.

"How in the world we did the entire thing in that garage I'll never know," she says now. "John (Farrer) was new in town then and I'd heard he wanted to do 'Nutcracker' with local dancers -- his thing has always been to keep it local."

Fortunately, one of her students at the time was Kelly Salisbury, whose father, the late Dr. Norman Salisbury, was in the habit of filming all of his daughter's performances. Given the technology available in 1977 the quality was not the best, but Trueblood contacted Farrer and asked if he'd like to see the film.

"Kelly and I took that awful film and showed it to John," Trueblood said. "It was nothing like the videos we get today. About a week after that, John called to say, 'Let's do it.'"

Tradition begins

Thus it began, and it's still strictly local. Counting all the musicians, dancers and volunteers, 350 local residents are involved. Many of the volunteers are former students whose children are carrying on the tradition.

In the three months before the December performances, the dancers learn and practice their steps to recordings of Tchaikovsky's music for the ballet (the CDs are not necessarily those done by the Bakersfield Symphony). The cast has only two full rehearsals with the orchestra before the actual performance, but Trueblood said that doesn't present a problem.

"In the studio we work with different CDs, but a CD is just a machine and John is so human," she said. "He works with the dancers and talks to them afterward."

Trueblood is assisted by three other choreographers: Kristen McLaughlin, Alicia Angelini and Ann Conrad. Each is responsible for a certain part of the production and each has a separate practice time, which starts right after Labor Day.

Keeping the traditions is important but Trueblood said there is some minor tweaking of the choreography.

"We always change the way we do things every year, but the audience doesn't notice," she said. "I know that Kristin has changed the lifts in the Arabian Dance.

A few things remain constant, however, such as the story on which the ballet is based, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," a fantasy written two centuries ago by E.T.A. Hoffman.

"We keep to the traditional story line and try to keep things the way the audience expects them to be," she said. "Things like the cannons going off during the mouse scene -- the kids love that."

Characters on stage

One scene that audiences find intriguing features a character called Mother Ginger, an adult dancer who glides onto the stage wearing an enormous hoop skirt. Under the skirt are about a dozen very young children who remain hidden until they pop out in twos and threes. And what most audiences don't know is that Mother Ginger is actually a "he," not a "she."

"Mother Ginger is always a male dancer," Trueblood said. "The dress is very heavy and we have to have a strong guy to do it. This year it's Marvin St. Pierre."

Nothing about this particular scene is random. It's all choreographed, even the steps they take underneath the skirt.

"It's very dark under there and the children can't see," she said. "They load up one at a time offstage; and they have to pull up their dresses so they're in their laps and then crawl with their knuckles on the floor."

Evidently practice makes perfect. Trueblood said it's so well-rehearsed that there's never been a mishap during a performance.

For ballerinas, the Sugar Plum Fairy is the most coveted role in the "Nutcracker." This year Shelby Hagelstein has the part. Her partner is Austin Erwin as the Cavalier.

The part of Clara, the little girl who is led into the magic kingdom by the Nutcracker Prince, David Moreno, is double cast. Jenai Wilcox and Katie Walsh alternate in the role during the four performances.

And once again, Cindy's agile husband, Kevin Trueblood, age 56, will appear as Herr Drosselmeier, Clara's godfather, who gives her the toy Nutcracker.

Today and Friday morning the auditorium will be filled with schoolchildren from all parts of Kern County who have bused in to see the ballet. Each child pays $3.50 for the abbreviated performance, which lasts about 45 minutes.

"We'll have close to 5,000 kids and many of them have never been to the auditorium or heard the music," said Alice Oden who works in the symphony's business office. "You should be there -- they're just in rapture."