Those mischievous mice are back on stage at Merrill Auditorium to kick off the holiday season. And they’ve brought along a large company of elegant dancers and cute kids for another spectacular production of “The Nutcracker” by the Maine State Ballet.

The oversized rodents who start a sort of Christmas after-party drew the many children in the audience in at the opening performance. The furry ones soon were left behind, though, as a young girl’s magical journey into a wondrous land where toys come to life and dancers from around the world arrive to entertain her begins.

The familiar story of young Clara, whose eccentric uncle gives her a nutcracker for Christmas, is told with healthy amounts of physical comedy, mime, athleticism and special effects in the mix. Above all, the stylistically varied choreography by Linda MacArthur Miele gracefully combines with the memorable music of Tchaikovsky as played by a live orchestra and chorus conducted by Karla M. Kelley Brenner.

Emma Davis took the lead role of Clara at the opening performance (some lead roles will be swapped among company members during the run of the show). Though revealing a powerful approach to her solos, Davis was nonetheless able to capture the youthful wonder generated by her character’s experiences in wintry forests and opulent palaces.

As always, the “Dance of the Snowflakes” was a visual delight to end the first act as a corps of dancers, beautifully dressed in white, swirled and drifted in sparkling formations across the stage while snow fell through shafts of light from the rafters.

Act Two brought out the Sugar Plum Fairy (Rhiannon Pelletier) to introduce Clara to the wealth of divertissement that filled the stage with a grand variety show. “Chocolate from Spain” and “Tea from China” segments featured colorful costumes (by Gail Csoboth) and distinctive stylistic dance signatures. Adrienne Pelletier had some “wow” moments as a highly flexible representative of “Coffee from Arabia.”

Roberto Forleo was a standout as a “Russian Cossack” who seemed to give new life to the old sense of “gotta dance.” He was a virtual whirlwind of athletic steps and turns that were all about a high-spirited celebration.

“Mother Ginger” brought out another contingent of the many children featured in the performance, as did a surprise visit from that bearded guy from the North Pole.

Two closing dance sequences, the “Waltz of the Flowers” and the “Grand Pas De Deux,” were a final reminder that the Maine State Ballet is keeping alive the tradition of ballet as both entertainment and art.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

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