It's the time of year when people see toys come to life and mice prance into battle - and no, it's not a hallucination brought on by cabin fever. For many in Columbus, a trip to Ohio Theatre for BalletMet's production of The Nutcracker has been woven with garland into their holiday traditions.

It's the time of year when people see toys come to life and mice prance into battle - and no, it's not a hallucination brought on by cabin fever. For many in Columbus, a trip to Ohio Theatre for BalletMet's production of The Nutcracker has been woven with garland into their holiday traditions.

BalletMet's 31st annual performance of the fairy tale promises nothing less than the effortless storytelling and dazzling choreography audiences have come to expect. Live performances by the Columbus Symphony Orchestra coupled with narration from Roger Moore only strengthen The Nutcracker's sway, but after all, it's the dancers who carry the show.

The classic ballet will be a new experience for Christine Mangia when she debuts in the coveted role of Sugar Plum Fairy. The Columbus native and eight-year BalletMet company dancer took some time between rehearsals to talk about The Nutcracker and what it's like ruling the Land of Sweets.

There are so many productions of The Nutcracker out there. What can people expect to see in this one?

I think some Nutcrackers are very cut-and-dry. Here, there's jokes, there's magic, the story is so well told. It makes you laugh and it makes you smile.

The scenery used by Gerard [Charles, BalletMet artistic director] is all movable and basically everything rotates. All the set pieces move and become different [objects], like the bookcase falls open and that's where all the soldiers come out and the fireplace becomes the entryway for all the rats. Everything is just so connected, it's beautiful.

I think the humor surprises people - it really seems to have broad appeal.

Yeah, it does. It's not too children-oriented; adults can go and just enjoy it.

You've played Clara in past productions. Is it exciting to now play the role of Sugar Plum Fairy?

Well, I always wanted to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. As a child that's who you look up to. I did Sugar Plum two years ago, but I only did like one show of it, because my partner had gotten hurt.

The two characters seem quite different. Is it hard to make that transition?

It is difficult, I have to say; it's a completely different character. Youthful, playful, laidback and relaxed - that's the way Gerard has us play Clara, just the innocence of that youthful character. As opposed to the Sugar Plum Fairy, who is so statuesque. She has her own kingdom, her own land. She's much warmer, much more mature.

Is that more demanding as a performer?

It's not as easy to just be the character; you have challenging steps on top of challenging artistry. It's very different [to go] from dancing in a night gown and into wearing a tutu, where you're very exposed and you're doing things that are so technical.

Have you found it easier with time to learn new characters?

Yeah, some are very simple things. I just did Lucy in Dracula, which is the completely opposite end of the spectrum, but it's so character-involved that you almost have to think more about that than the [dance] steps, because it's so demanding on the story.

Is that first performance still nerve-wracking for you?

Oh yeah, it always is - that theater is so big.