Playing with tradition is a bold move, and one Rodney Gustafson, artistic director of State Street Ballet, is not afraid to try. Last weekend, the company presented its annual holiday production-a 1930s Hollywood twist on The Nutcracker. There are quite a few versions of the Christmas classic dancing through Santa Barbara this time of year, and it can be hard to keep them all straight, but State Street Ballet’s variation is unmistakable; Gustafson reinterprets the traditional story using gangster rats in zoot suits and Ethel Merman-style synchronized swimmers as snowflakes.
The problem with this version, though, is the colorful characters of this golden era never quite form a cohesive whole. Each scene is distinct from the next, with little character development and a few confusing ambiguities. The provocative French maid at the party appears again in Act II, for example, as a Russian dancer in a mini dress and apron, without any explanation for her reincarnation.
Dancing was strong and consistent for the most part, with long, elegant lines and crisp turns. The company’s strength lies in the dancers’ abilities to strike positions and wow the audience with split grand jetes and high leg extensions. The corps de ballet was also well choreographed with solid dancing, and the energy of the group pieces often surpassed the solos.
Terez Dean danced the role of Clara with technical grace and ease. She was well partnered by the exuberant Ryan Camou, who never made a false step. His cat-like landings and gravity-defying jumps were the clear highlight of the second act. The other noteworthy performance was Alyson Mattoon as Gruella de Mille, the fierce leader of the gangster rats, who executed each step precisely and expertly.
One of the highlights of State Street Ballet’s NutCracker was the replacement of the traditional Mother Ginger with Mae West. The hysterically over-the-top Sergei Domrachev played the starlet, who appeared with a swarm of children, all students from the Gustafson School. This typically gender-bending performance was a clear crowd pleaser, and Domrachev flirted with the audience in a way that would have made even Mae West blush.
Though this NutCracker alternative fell just short of the Hollywood magic it seemed to strive for, the costumes and sets were glamorous and the dancers inarguably talented. And something of the classical ballet’s spirit remained-a satisfied audience filed out of the Lobero still humming Tchaikovsky’s familiar score.