In a holiday ritual that brings delight to many every Christmas season, the Palace Theatre will host Connecticut Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker, with four performances the weekend of Dec. 21-22.

“We wrap ourselves in the tradition of the holidays and The Nutcracker. This is a full-length production, and it’s a real warhorse in the sense that it’s our most popular piece,” Brett Raphael, Connecticut Ballet’s artistic director and CEO, said. “We want to embrace new audiences and love when families discover it for the first time and then make it an annual tradition.”

A favorite to many, the ballet tells the story of Clara as she travels with her Uncle Drosselmeyer through the Land of the Snowflakes to the Land of the Sweets and back, meeting the Sugar Plum Fairy and other exciting characters along the way.

“What is different this year is the guest stars,” Raphael said. “Every year, we have two couples alternating in the leads. For local dance people who follow New York Dance, they enjoy coming to see some of their favorite dancers in Stamford.”

Unity Phelan and Adrian Danchig-Waring of the New York City Ballet will dance the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier on Dec. 21, while Hee Seo and Sebastian Villarini-Velez of the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet, respectively, perform them on Dec. 22.

Pennsylvania Ballet principal dancer Oksana Maslova returns for a second year as the Snow Queen.

“She’s also going to be doing Dew Drop, who rules over the Land of the Sweets, and that will be a first for Oksana for our production, and she will do all four shows,” Raphael said.

Although the story never changes, the Connecticut Ballet may change up the costumes or lighting or sets, with the theatrical elements always being strengthened and changed to make it more interesting.

“In Europe, it’s considered just another Russian ballet that could be performed any time, but here in America, it is associated with the holiday season,” Raphael said. “That gives it an extra pull and a spiritual uplift that people enjoy. The music is so lush and the dancing so theatrical, that it makes very family-friendly entertainment.”

He compares it to a first-time audience member going to see the circus for the first time — there’s a lot of exciting things going on with different side shows, and it’s just eye candy to watch.

“It’s a very fast-moving plot, from the party scene to the snow scene to the Land of the Sweets, and you have all the different characters from different lands entertaining Clara,” Raphael said. “It gives you a warm sensation around the holidays.”

This year’s production has a special meaning to Raphael. When he was 10, he first started dancing at Ballet Etudes (founded by notable Norwalk resident Russel Fratto) and was paired with a 13-year old girl, named Kathleen to do his first-ever pas de deux.

“I was clueless about partnering and she was on pointe and very haughty — not wanting to even talk to me as I was clearly a rank beginner and a boy!” he says. “I was entranced by her and immediately developed a crush on her. I practiced at home how I would hold her waist and hold my body to match her lines. This was one of the experiences that gave me the inspiration to become a dancer.”

Shortly thereafter, she withdrew from the school and the two never saw each other again … until this year. Now, 54 years later, 38 years after Raphael founded Connecticut Ballet, Kathleen signed up for his adult intermediate ballet class. After talking about the full-circle moment, he quickly cast her as the Grandmother in The Nutcracker, and the two will be sharing the stage again, this time with Raphael as Uncle Drosselmeyer greeting her as part of the festivities onstage.

“It’s literally been a lifetime that has separated us, and it’s such a sweet feeling to have her in The Nutcracker family,” he said. “Here we are 50 years later, still enjoying dance.”

That is the case with all the dancers in the show, and Raphael is excited to have people come out and see what he promises to be an outstanding production.

After each performance, the Connecticut Ballet provides the opportunity for audience members to meet and greet the artists in the lobby.

“People line up and love the opportunity to take photos and talk about the performance,” Raphael said. “It can be an inspirational start. A young person may decide to take dance or continue against all odds and become a dancer. We love that part.”

The Palace Theatre presents CT Ballet’s The Nutcracker. The production runs 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 21; and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 22. Tickets range from $50-$75. For more information, visit connecticutballetcenter.com. or call 203-964-1211.