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In review: Ballet Arkansas and Ricky Skaggs 

It never gets old Ballet Arkansas’s “The Nutcracker” signals the holidays are here. The ballet and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra have been performing E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic tale of Clara and her journey into the Land of Sweets set to Tchaikovsky’s well-known musical score for quite a while — this reviewer has seen it at least five times in the last 15 years. Yet it never gets old. The surprise is still there when the Christmas tree grows and the rats battle the soldiers. The snowflakes in the Land of Snow are perpetually delicate and beautiful. A gasp will always be heard in the audience when the Sugar Plum Fairy graces the stage for the first time. All was true for Saturday evening’s presentation, a vision of grace magnified by the Symphony’s flawless performance. Mark Bush, the artistic director of Ballet Arkansas, added a few twists to the timeless favorite. Patricia Barker, a principal with the Pacific Northwest Ballet who is considered to be a world-class ballerina, danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy for the second year in a row. Stanko Milov, also of Pacific Northwest Ballet reprised his role as the Cavalier. The duo was thrilling to watch. Barker’s stage presence was powerful, especially during her solo at the end of Act II. Expectations were high, as evidenced by the immediate applause the two dancers received when they first appeared on stage, and Barker and Milov did not disappoint. Other guest artists were Robert Porch as the Nutcracker Prince and Russian dancer, and Ben Majors as Drosselmeyer, Arabian dancer and Russian dancer. Both men have extensive resumes that include roles in ballets across the country. Celebrity guests were KATV, Channel 7, reporter Christina Muñoz and Channel 7 “Mid-Day Arkansas” co-host Jason Harper. Muñoz, a trained ballerina, played Frau Stahlbaum. Harper was Mother Ginger and not too subtly waved a Channel 7 flag from his high perch (the traditional Mother Ginger costume that covers nine little Bon Bons). The real scene-stealers, though, were the talented dancers Joi Chen, Kelly Hutchins and Grace Tilley. The homegrown dancers were marvelous — sweeping across stage as the Spanish variation soloist, the Snow Queen and the Dew Drop Fairy, respectively. They danced with skill. Energy and grace. Dawn Talkington as Clara was also a treat. David Itkin conducted the ASO’s fabulous performance of the familiar score. With fewer musicians than Tchaikovsky composed for and from a cramped pit, the orchestra made do and performed to its usual high standard. — By Eliza Borné Nonstop Skaggs CONWAY — Veteran country crooner and mandolin player Ricky Skaggs promised Saturday’s crowd he’d be back soon, with either a Christmas family show or gospel performance or another bluegrass concert like the one we were enjoying. And why would he mislead the full-house crowd (1,200 capacity) in Reynolds Performance Hall? The crowd gave Skaggs and his six-man Kentucky Thunder group several standing ovations throughout the nearly two-hour show. Skaggs enjoyed it so much, he gave Saturday’s crowd about 20 more minutes than Friday’s sellout got to hear, then he and his band camped out in the Reynolds lobby signing what had to be hundreds of autographs on anything fans put in front of them: new CDs, old albums, posters, shirts. It was like being in Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium as Skaggs took listeners on a bluegrass educational tour through its beginnings with Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers to Skaggs’ own Grammy Award-nominated work. Kentucky Thunder was impeccable, and it was interesting to observe Skaggs’ fascination with his youngest bandmembers, violinist Andy Leftwich and lead guitarist Cody Kilby, during their lightning-quick solos. Veteran banjoist Jim Mills, set up on the other end of the stage, didn’t disappoint during his turns either. Mark Fain on bass may have been placed in the background, but his rhythm was solid. Paul Brewster’s guitar work and wonderful high-tenor voice and Darrin Vincent’s baritone tenor complemented Skaggs nicely on many of the classic bluegrass and gospel vocal numbers. The crowd jumped to its feet at the finish of several kicking instrumental tunes, including a few off Skaggs’ new, Grammy-nominated CD, “Brand New Strings.” You rarely find entertainment this great at $25 a ticket anymore, much less on successive nights in the same Arkansas town. But Conway had it last weekend, and Skaggs made certain the fans knew they would again. — By Jim Harris
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