Maui Connections

Watching the Moscow Ballet’s spellbinding “Nutcracker” in Tucson, Ariz., last Friday, I realized how etched in memory Peter Tchaikovsky’s orchestral music box is, and what a time capsule this holiday ballet has become for my family.

Last Friday it was our 7-year-old granddaughter, Lilie, dancing on stage, just as her mother, Lisa, had for a decade of Christmases on Maui.

The touring Moscow dancers define balletic grace. Everything about the production in Tucson — the elegant costumes and grand stage sets and lighting — was classically, ornately Russian. Students from the local Flor De Liz Dance studio shared the stage, adding nonstop cuteness and filling the large Centennial Hall on the University of Arizona campus with proud, happy family and friends.

For the dozens of times I’ve seen it, this “Nutcracker” took things to another level of grandeur and dance artistry. It wasn’t just a child’s dream of magical toys and candies, but a young woman’s awakening as well. In this version, the magical land of the second act is lush with greenery, flowers and a rainbow . . . reminiscent of Hawaii.

But like another classic of the season — Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” — watching the ballet set off a montage of past Nutcrackers, as members of those productions danced through my memories in front of the Moscow Ballet’s majestic stage sets.

The memories began in the Baldwin High School Auditorium 25 years ago, when the Maui Arts & Cultural Center was still a work in progress at a busy construction site by Kahului Harbor. That first production was an ambitious undertaking by the short-lived Maui Ballet studio in Wailuku. It was directed by Anita Parisi and staged by visiting artist, Kirov-trained Nikolai Kabaniaev, who also starred as the Nutcracker prince. Robin Kneubuhl dancing the exotic Arabian, and Kelly Kepler leading a troupe of comic mice were standouts, along with our daughter, making her ballet debut as Clara.

Once the MACC opened its gates, the Maui Academy of Performing Arts — still called “The Academy” in those days before the sleeker MAPA logo took hold — was our Nutcracker provider. Enchanting Virginia Holte staged and directed the performances and starred as the Sugar Plum Fairy; Kathleen Schultz was behind the scenes involved in every stage of the production, keeping everything running smoothly.

Along with the hundreds of young MAPA dancers through the years, other friends found their ways onto the stage, too. My Maui News colleagues Liz and Paul Janes Brown were featured in the company for one production; in another, future MACC CEO and President Art Vento was the Mouse King.

“The Nutcracker” was created in snowy Russia more than a century ago, in those pre-digital dark ages before imagination was store-bought, when children cherished receiving a single gift for Christmas, and visions of dancing confections was the height of fantasy. This holiday has always been about children’s dreams, hopes and other sorts of miracles.

Not until much later does the pleasure come from the other direction in reveries of Christmases past, where the joys have gotten sweeter with age.

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Many people mark Christmas each year with movies, and a uniquely local way of celebrating the season is Barry and Stella Rivers’ Maui Film Festival FirstLight screenings. They feature Maui premieres of multi-Golden Globe nominees and likely Academy Award contenders, resuming today and Wednesday in Castle Theater at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center.

Today’s schedule features the animated Golden Globe nominee “The Breadwinner” at 2 p.m., about a girl in Afghanistan who disguises herself as a boy to provide for her family. At 5 p.m., Christian Bale stars in “Hostiles” as a cavalry captain escorting a Cheyenne chief and his family through the wild West in 1892. And at 8 p.m., “I, Tonya” revisits the dangerous Olympic ice-skating rivalry between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, having already landed a triple Golden Globe leap for stars Margot Robbie and Allison Janney as well as a nod for best comedy.

On Wednesday, a 2 p.m. encore of “Downsizing” features a 5-inch-tall Matt Damon in Alexander Payne’s provocative, philosophical satire. At 5 p.m., “The Florida Project” follows the relationship between a rebellious 6-year-old prankster and crusty but warm-hearted Golden Globe nominee Willem Dafoe, who manages the cheap motel where she and her mother live in the shadow of Disney World. And at 8 p.m., Maui Film Festival honoree Jessica Chastain teams with acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin in his directorial debut for “Molly’s Game” about a resourceful young woman who winds up running a high-stakes poker game that already has three Golden Globe nominations in its hand.

For more details and tickets, visit

* Rick Chatenever, award-winning former entertainment and features editor of The Maui News, is a freelance journalist and documentary scriptwriter/producer. Contact him at