Certain classics of the holiday season are worth experiencing at least once — a fine example is The Nutcracker, the dark and extraordinary, yet startlingly beautiful, ballet about a young girl whisked away to a world of warring mice, sugarplum fairies, and magical, dancing elements of winter. The greater Santa Barbara area has a number of productions of The Nutcracker running this winter, but perhaps the most lavish and visually stunning production is that of State Street Ballet (SSB), Santa Barbara’s professional ballet company. Formed in 1994 by former American Ballet Theatre dancer Rodney Gustafson, State Street Ballet puts on a production featuring the company’s professional cast as well as student dancers from its associated dance-training program, Gustafson Dance.
Since its first production in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia, the two-act ballet, set to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s now famous musical score, has become a beloved traditional Christmas tale in our culture. For those unfamiliar, the story takes place on Christmas Eve, beginning with an extravagant holiday party in a splendid drawing room. Young children Clara and Fritz receive gifts, including a wooden nutcracker, of which Clara is particularly fond. Fritz breaks the nutcracker, and Clara is deeply upset. After everyone has left the party and gone to sleep, Clara creeps downstairs to find the toy and realizes that her drawing room is in a state of disorienting flux: Everything except Clara grows to massive proportions. Clara is suddenly witness to a surreal battle: The mice are warring with an army of gingerbread soldiers, led by her precious, but wounded, nutcracker.
Clara sees her nutcracker in danger. She throws her shoe to distract the advancing mouse king, allowing the nutcracker to defeat the foe. The battle ends with the nutcracker’s army victorious, and the nutcracker transformed into a prince. He takes Clara through the enchanted forest to his kingdom, where she is greeted with a celebration of the army’s success. This kingdom exists in a magical universe, one characterized by the ensuing festive dances, performed by the variety of magical creatures of the realm. Romance and whimsy abound throughout this jubilee of impressive ballet performances.
State Street Ballet is characterized by its inventive combination of classic technique with dance choreography of a more modern style to create a vibrant, unique experience that combines important and elegant practices of the finest traditions of ballet with cutting-edge physicality. With choreography by Gary McKenzie, Marina Fliagina, and SSB Artistic Director Gustafson, the company’s The Nutcracker is made especially sensational by the added excitement of theatrical special effects that bring the prince’s kingdom of wonder to life. The production is also staged with trimmings from Russia, giving it a taste of authenticity that still retains a sense of the exotic.
A professional touring company, State Street Ballet takes its production of The Nutcracker through Colorado and Washington every year, working with local dance programs there to feature talented students alongside the professionals. These collaborative efforts are an important tenet of State Street Ballet’s outreach program to mentor young dancers. The return of The Nutcracker to the Santa Barbara stage will conclude the dance company’s tour.
For the fourth year in a row, Tchaikovsky’s familiar and overwhelmingly emotional score will be played by the Opera San Luis Obispo Orchestra, under the direction of Brian Asher Alhadeff. Don’t miss this classic of the holiday season — State Street Ballet and Gustafson Dance are sure to produce a spectacle.
State Street Ballet’s presentations of The Nutcracker take place Saturday, December 19, at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, December 20, at 2 p.m., at the Granada Theatre, 1214 State Street. For tickets, call the Granada box office at (805) 899-2222.