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From the start, 'Nutcracker' was a plum gig for quirky band

Jeanne Claire van Ryzin

Josh Robins never figured he'd ever become a holiday-time guitar hero to the preschool set.

No, the 33-year-old founder of the band the Invincible Czars always thought he'd draw his fans from folks who shared the eclectic influences that give the Czars their singular style. With a fondness for music that ranges from heavy metal to klezmer and jazz bands to modernist classical composers such as Shost akovich, Robins and his band were already carving a niche for themselves when, as a little bit of a lark, they decided to take on Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite."

But when Robins' rock band arrangement of "The Nutcracker Suite" debuted in 2004, complete with violin, it sold out two shows. People couldn't get enough of the power-chord guitar version of the 19th-century holiday classical music.

Since then, the Invincible Czars have spent every holiday season reprising their "Nutcracker Suite" at various gigs around the state.

On Saturday, the Czars will once again host the "Dance-Along Nutcracker" at two shows at Jovita's in South Austin. Audience members young and old can get in touch with their inner Sugar Plum Fairy and rock out to the rocked-up Tchaikovsky. An afternoon matinee is specifically geared to families with volume levels considerate of younger ears.

At the family shows, Robins finds himself being asked for autographs by preschoolers.

"I had no idea it would become what it's become," says Robins between bites of a taco at Whole Foods Market Caf?, on a break from his day job as the program coordinator for the Austin Music Foundation, the nonprofit musicians' service organization. "As a band, we spend all year losing money doing what we do but then make it all back every December. But where else but Austin would you find parents who are going to find something like (what we do) fun?"

Robins also had no idea that the audience would break out in faux ballet either.

"People just spontaneously danced at the first few ('Nutcracker') shows," says Robins. "Then we codified the dancing a bit so everyone could enjoy it more."

Now, before the show, choreographer Caroline Sutton Clark provides props (including fake snowballs for throwing during the "Waltz of the Snowflakes" section) and offers tips for anyone who wants to hone his or her twinkle-toes skills.

This year, the Czars again took their show to Houston, where they played the Wortham Center in conjunction with Houston Ballet. They've also taken their "Nutcracker" to Dallas and San Marcos. And they perform it at several different events in Austin every December. The 2007 holiday season saw the studio release of the Czars' "Nutcracker Suite" CD.

Donning fanciful red jackets and hats that resemble the old-fashioned military outfit worn by a classic nutcracker figurine, Robins and his crew charge through the full version of "The Nutcracker Suite." After penning a score for the two-act fairy tale ballet, Tchaivoksky selected eight movements to form "The Nutcracker Suite," which became a hit with the late 19th-century symphony-going audience.

Robins has also crafted rock band arrangements for Tchaikovsky's "1812 Overture" (the band played it at the OK Mozart Festival in Oklahoma this summer as the only rock band on the roster) and Mussorgsky's "Night on Bald Mountain."

"Hopefully we're exposing kids to classical music in a format that's familiar," Robins says of his "Nutcracker" arrangement.

Perhaps visions of being a rock guitar hero dancing in little heads?

jvanryzin@statesman.com; 445-3699