The collaboration between Orchestra Iowa and Ballet Quad Cities continues to flourish, through Saturday's matinee performance of "The Nutcracker" at the Paramount Theatre. It repeats Sunday afternoon in Cedar Rapids and Dec. 14 and 15 at the Adler Theatre in Davenport. On a frigid afternoon, the full house was warm and happy, with all the glories of classical ballet in full array. Many in the audience were dressed up for the occasion, with lots of glitter and bows, particularly on the little girls. A 6-year-old girl was dancing and singing in the aisle during intermission, with absolute abandon. She was having a great time. Indeed, "The Nutcracker" is all about the kids. It is a recognized starting point for many young ballerinas. The kids in the audience love seeing the kids on stage. And they bring their parents and grandparents by the thousands. The ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, on Dec. 18, 1892. Its popular composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, had already written "Swan Lake" (1876) and "Sleeping Beauty" (1889). These three works continue to be the mainstay of many a ballet company. Tchaikovsky's music is eminently danceable, with a strong tempo that dancers and choreographers require. It is always a pleasure to have live music for a dance performance, to watch the dancers listen to the music, and work closely with the conductor. The dancers seek to inhabit the music, with steps neither ahead or behind. Many a dance company cannot afford a live orchestra, and by the dancers lose that all-important sense of improvisation, of discovery in the moment. Guest Conductor Scott Dunn offered a straightforward, almost business-like rendering of the score, which was welcome. As usual, the string section played with its newly discovered warmth, blending beautifully with the reeds and brasses. It was a confident, surprisingly soft hearing of the score, building towards the finale with skill. This was not a heroic rendition of this familiar work, but rather a tender, almost whispered confirmation of the music. Ballet Quad Cities dancers are trained to invest themselves in the music, and they know how to listen. The story centers on Clara's nutcracker gift, a princely fellow who comes to life in her dream. The Nutcracker fights off the mice that invade her dream, dispensing with the Mouse King in fine fashion. I was particularly fond of the Mouse King's entrance, standing on a table as if he was David Bowie, with the adoring mouse groupies bowing down. He also died well, waving goodbye to the audience. Particularly memorable was the littlest mouse, very determined to hit his marks on stage, and running around with great determination. The kids throughout the performance were irresistible. They were disciplined, well-coached, and appeared to be having a fine old time. They will never forget this experience. Bringing a chorus of 50 children into the house, with candles and white tops, was an unexpected treat. Other highlights include: * The snow that falls from above in "The Land of Snow," at the conclusion of Act I. It is amazing that indoor snowfall, as imitated by white paper and stage hands, always works. Even in Iowa. * The backdrop of Act II for "The Land of Sweets," by Paul Sanerud. This drop was exquisitely designed and painted, as a kind of Nordic fantasy of snowflake patterns, set up against an exotic aurora borealis. Gary Holmquist's sensitive lighting brought the magic home. * The lively flow of the party scene, with the bratty boys pestering the girls, worked nicely. The boys' behavior is echoed later by those nasty mice. * Wrapping a tiny scarf around the nutcracker's broken neck, when he is still in doll form. * A nifty large rat in the first present opened, and the discovery of a mouse mask in the treasure trunk of gifts. We are well prepared for what's to come in Clara's fantasy. * The performances of Clara by Emily Kate Long, and the Nutcracker by Jacob Lyon. Their duets at the ends of Act I and II were the embodiment of youthful love. Long, in particular, is a beautiful dancer. She has wonderfully expressive arms and hands, and holds her back and shoulders with elegance. The best news is that the old story, written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816, still has life, and that it brings out such large audiences. This lovely production is carefully thought out and cleanly danced. The art form called ballet is a difficult, demanding one. It is often said that a minute on stage requires a thousand hours of rehearsal. Do you remember the lyrics from "Chorus Line"? "Everything was beautiful at the ballet / Graceful men lift lovely girls in white. / I was happy ... at the ballet." You will be, too. FAST TAKE What: "The Nutcracker," featuring Orchestra Iowa and Ballet Quad Cities Cedar Rapids: 2:30 p.m. Sunday (12/8), Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE; $19 to $49, Paramount Ticket Office or Davenport: 1:30 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14, 1:30 p.m. Dec. 15, Adler Theatre, 136 E. Third St., $12 to $35, Adler Box Office, 1-(800) 745-3000, or