Isabella Fuentes as Clara
Courtesy Photo

Few are strangers to Tchaikovsky’s holiday classic The Nutcracker, the tale of a young girl’s Christmastime adventure to a world of Sugar Plum Fairies, armies of mice, and faraway lands. To State Street Ballet director Rodney Gustafson, The Nutcracker is “a critical way we introduce dance to mainstream America and the primary motivator to get young men involved with dance.” To audiences, the ballet is a beloved family outing and tradition. To dancers, the show boasts some of the most coveted roles to land.

This year’s State Street Ballet production, however, functions as more than just a significant holiday event, but also as a symbol of the dance company’s resilience and attention to community. Last year, the performance was canceled due to the Thomas Fire, which Gustafson remembers as “heartbreaking” for his dancers, many of whom “lost their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Isabella Fuentes, who was cast to dance the lead role of Clara, recalls the disaster, making sure to note the support the cast and crew gave to each other: “Hard times bring people closer. Even with the Thomas Fire raging, we continued our rehearsals. Coming to class with a mask on became part of our routine.” These rehearsals begin in September, five days a week, three to six hours each. Fuentes, whose family had to evacuate twice, was eating breakfast hours before the final curtain call, wondering if her community was still standing when she was told the performance had been canceled. Luckily, however, she gets another chance at her dream to play Clara in this year’s production.

Fuentes began as “a late bloomer” at 9 years old, but through natural ability and hard work quickly came to take ballet very seriously and now aims to become professional. “Dance has helped me become who I am today,” she said. “I have always been quiet and a bit of a loner, but with dance I feel like I can be myself and just move freely. It’s another way for me to express myself without having to use words.” Fuentes aims to become an instructor herself one day, as she “[adores] helping people and wants to spread the idea and concepts of dance to whomever, even if they are not a dancer.”

Her enthusiasm for expression and education is mirrored in State Street Ballet’s mission. Gustafson cited its dedication to “bring high levels of the art form to all socio-economic levels and serve as an incubator for new and progressive work in dance.” Indeed, the company’s commitment as pioneers of dance education around the world is exemplified throughout its unconventional national and international tour of the Tchaikovsky classic, which will hold its next date back home in Santa Barbara.


The State Street Ballet’s version of the Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker will be performed on Saturday-Sunday, December 15-16, at The Granada Theatre. For tickets and information, call 899-2222 or see


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