In fairy tales, there's often a handsome prince who arrives from a far-off land.
Two of the leading men in this year's Royal Winnipeg Ballet production of Nutcracker certainly fit the bill.
Nurzhan Kulybaev from Uzbekistan and Harrison James from New Zealand are both stepping into the role of RWB's noble Nutcracker Prince for the first time.
The seven-performance run of the Tchaikovsky-scored holiday favourite opens Wednesday and continues to Dec. 28.
The two princes bring very different past experiences of the ballet centred on Clara, the girl who receives a nutcracker from her Uncle Drosselmeier at a Christmas party, then has a dream in which mice battle toy soldiers and the nutcracker comes to life as a prince, escorting Clara to magical lands.
Kulybaev, 27, arrived here in August as the company's newest principal (top-ranked) dancer. He's formerly a principal with Jacobson's State Academic Ballet Theatre in St. Petersburg, the Russian city where Nutcracker had its première in 1892.
He's been dancing in it since the age of 15, he says through a Russian interpreter. As an adult, he has played the Prince, as well as roles in the Arabian and Spanish numbers. The story that endures in St. Petersburg is a bit darker than here, he says, with a more sorcerer-like Drosselmeier and a slight tinge of sadness to the ending.
"In Canada, Nutcracker is more a family show. It gathers the family together," he says. "Back home, Drosselmeier is so magical, and more serious."
Artistic director André Lewis says he hired Kulybaev after receiving an application package from him, then auditioning him in New York last spring. The language barrier is something RWB has coped with many times, Lewis says, noting that Ukrainian-born dancers Alexander Gamayunov and Dmitri Dovgoselets (the latter also rotates as the Prince) can interpret for the newcomer.
Kulybaev isn't tall, but Lewis says he has great presence. "He's very gregarious. . . . He has this great smile -- he's just beaming all the time."
Kulybaev will likely flash his mega-watt, dimpled grin when he's not playing the Prince and instead has a showy role in the party scene -- set in 1913 Winnipeg -- as Edouard, the soldier fiancé of flamboyant Aunt Josephine.
His real-life girlfriend, a Russian dancer who is currently teaching in Ohio, is coming to spend Christmas with him at his Exchange District apartment.
James, a 20-year-old New Zealander who was promoted to first soloist after his impressive star turn in this fall's Svengali, remembers being amazed when he first encountered the North American popularity of Nutcracker.
The ballet, which took off in America after the New York City Ballet presented it in 1954, is "definitely not a traditional Christmastime thing" in New Zealand.
Before he joined the San Francisco Ballet School's trainee program at age 17, James had only seen the Royal New Zealand Ballet do it once, and it was a modern version that included three guys dancing on crutches. "Clara gets hit over the head with the nutcracker and goes to hospital," he explains.
At the San Francisco Ballet, where James danced in some 28 gruelling "Nutz" performances in both 2008 and 2009, he recalls saying in disbelief, "You do 32 shows? And you do it every year?"
After handling several roles as a newcomer to RWB last season, James is cast as the Prince in three Winnipeg performances, including opening night (he also rotates as Edouard). "I never thought I'd be doing it so soon," he says.
One of the key challenges, he says, is mastering the regal bearing of a classical prince for the first time.
Royal carriage is likely second nature to Kulybaev because of his Russian stage pedigree, but the principal couples rehearse separately, James says, and he hasn't been able to steal any of the Russian's nuances.
"I think naturally, I'm more of a contemporary mover," James says. "I've been getting a lot of coaching in just holding myself in the right way. . . .
"Ballet is a lot of illusion. There's certain tricks you can do to make you look like you're in the air longer, or make your legs look longer. (To look princely), it's things like keeping my gestures below the chest, so my chest is always visible, and keeping my neck long."
Then there's striding around with an imperial air. "The hardest thing to do in ballet is to walk and not look like a dork."
James also says the battle scene, with all its tumultuous action while he's wearing a cumbersome nutcracker mask, makes him nervous.
"Props scare me," he says, with a laugh. "You've got the nutcracker head on, you've got slits for eyes, you have to do pirouettes and jump around, and you're waving a sword. I'm always paranoid I'm going to chop someone up on stage."
Speaking of chopping, ballet-goers may be wondering what happened to Yun Wang and Yang Jiao, the two principal dancers from China who were hired at the same time as Kulybaev.
The dancers, who are a romantic couple, didn't appear in Svengali, are not in Nutcracker, apparently did a handful of performances on tour, and have now mysteriously disappeared from the roster.
Lewis says he can't say a word about what went wrong until the couple's contracts expire on Dec. 31.