In Santa Barbara, sometimes it’s hard to remember that it’s the holiday season. Deep into December, palm trees sway and sunshine blares, despite the nonstop radio recycle of “Jingle Bells” and “Frosty the Snowman.” But as an aspiring ballerina growing up here, I knew Santa was on his way when I’d don my best floral-print dress and head to the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet’s (SBFB) production of The Nutcracker. Five seconds in, Christmas bells were ringing hard and fast, and I felt completely enveloped by the winter wonderland. Most of all, the Santa Barbara Symphony’s glorious music lulled me into a candy-cane-fueled bliss.
That was in the 1980s, but this amazing tradition continues still, and the production is now in its 41st year. In thinking back to my own holiday memories, I grew interested in learning more about the background of this time-treasured Santa Barbara tradition. How did it get started? Who are the principal dancers this year? And what is the story of this iconic ballet anyways?
In case you have been living under a media-free holiday rock, here’s a quick summary of The Nutcracker: E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story is set at a lavish Christmas party, and it follows Clara, a young girl who receives a toy nutcracker from her magical godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, as a Christmas present. The toy transforms Clara’s evening into an enchanted journey involving a nutcracker turned prince, a Sugar Plum Fairy, and a voyage into a giant candy-filled kingdom. Entertaining characters and a thrilling score make up for any holes in the plot.
The music, it turns out, is what first inspired this Santa Barbara tradition. In 1974, Santa Barbara Symphony conductor Ronald Ondrejka asked Bob and Carol Hanlin at Santa Barbara Festival Ballet to collaborate on a production of The Nutcracker, and it has been going strong ever since. This Santa Barbara production has the distinction of being one of the longest continuously running productions of The Nutcracker in the United States. This year, accomplished musician Elise Unruh will conduct the orchestra through Tchaikovsky’s luscious music.
Leading the dancers are guest artists Michele Wiles (Sugar Plum Fairy), founder of New York City–based BalletNext, and Russell Janzen (Cavalier), soloist with the New York City Ballet. Besides Wiles, Janzen, and other professionals, The Nutcracker will also feature a cast of around 100 area dancers of all ages.
Like many Santa Barbara dancers, Janzen grew up performing in various roles in The Nutcracker, and the ballet was his first inspiration to dance. Janzen said, “The Nutcracker is what first drew me to ballet, and I’ve worked my way through many of the roles, starting with Fritz when I was just 8.”
It’s amazing to imagine some young dancer, like Janzen, in this production eventually ending up as a professional dancer in New York City. It makes me think of my own childhood in ballet class and, now, my daughter. This week, I will be taking my 3-year-old aspiring ballerina to see this same SBFB version of The Nutcracker that I saw as a child. With my girl in mind, I asked Wiles her advice for young dancers. She said, “Go to all of the performances that you can so you have an idea about the ballet and its history. It pays to dream and to watch your idols.”
Santa Barbara Festival Ballet presents The Nutcracker, with a live full symphony orchestra, on Saturday, December 12, 2:30 and 7 p.m., and Sunday, December 13, at 2:30 p.m., at the Arlington Theatre (1317 State St.). Tickets are $30-$50. Call the box office at (805) 963-4408 or see ticketmaster.com.