Crackin' 'The Nutcracker'

By Jim Carnes

One of these days—and it may not be that far off—Ron Cunningham may be able to cast all the adult roles in The Nutcracker with dancers who started as kids in a Sacramento Ballet production of the holiday classic.
I myself, were I a dancer, would have aged through Mouse King and Party Parent to toymaker Drosselmeyer, whose magical creation is the living doll of the title, on my way to creaky Grandfather. It’s that long—two whole decades—that I have been captivated by this magical tale and watched Cunningham’s choreography evolve and the dancers mature. Alexandra Cunningham (yes, Ron and co-artistic director Carinne Binda’s daughter) is not yet 30, but she’s danced here for 21 years. She has progressed from kid parts and Clara—the little girl whose dream The Nutcracker recounts—through Governess and Parent to Snow Queen and this year’s pinnacle, the Sugar Plum Fairy, which she danced magnificently as in last Saturday night’s opening. Three other dancers rotate in the role this year, with former Sacramento Ballet star Kirsten Bloom (now a mother of two) returning to perform at the December 22 show. Bloom, Binda told me Saturday, “broke in every Cavalier [the fairy’s dance partner] in the company. She was the first to dance with each of them, and in rehearsal, when she paired with Stefan [Calka, who will partner her on December 22], it was like they had danced it together only yesterday.”
Ballet, especially as it is practiced by this company, is the highest form of artistry and athleticism. Show me an athlete who can lift 80 pounds or so above her head, spin and slide across a stage and lower that weight—on her toes—at the exact right moment with the music and at the precise spot for the next move, and I’ll show you a figment of your imagination.
But enough of that. A different imagination is involved in The Nutcracker. It’s the imagination of an innocent child who dreams a magical adventure in which mice and toy soldiers do battle and a very special toy turns into a charming prince who escorts her to surprising realms: the Snowflake Forest, where the King and Queen (Lauryn Winterhalder and Calka on opening night) arrive by reindeer-drawn carriage; to the Kingdom of Sweets, where the Sugar Plum Fairy, cherubs and angels, candy canes, marzipan and Mother Ginger dance. The Sugar Plum Fairy presents an ethnic entertainment demonstration (composer Tchaikovsky and original choreographer Marius Petipa’s way of introducing new musical themes and balletic versions of folk-type dances) for Clara’s amusement. Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian “divertissements” culminate in the Waltz of the Flowers with an elegant Rose between two thorns—rather Cavaliers (Ava Chatterson with Mate Szentes and Dylan Keane on Saturday). Finally comes the gand pas de deux featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier (Richard Porter, showing strong partnering skills Saturday), sending Clara and the Nutcracker off in a flying hot air balloon, back home and back to reality.
Some special notes on this year’s production:
The opening night Clara was performed by Carly Stewart, and her guardian Nutcracker was danced by her older brother Alex, a member of the company. In some performances, Mother Ginger will be danced by yet another Stewart, brother Tim.
All of this year’s Sugar Plum Fairies and their Cavaliers (Alexandra Cunningham and Richard Porter, Lauryn Winterhalder and Richard Smith, Kaori Higashiyama and Christopher Nachtrab and Kirsten Bloom and Stefan Calka) are scheduled to dance at the final performance, December 23.
Live music performed by the Sacramento Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Henrik Jul Hansen, enhanced the opening night performance. The orchestra also will accompany shows at 1 p.m. on December 15 and 23 and at 7 p.m. on December 20. Other performances of The Nutcracker will be danced to recorded music. There’s a premium admission price for the “live experience” to help defray musicians’ pay. Tickets are $19 to $90, depending on performance and seat location.
Recorded music performances are at 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. December 21, and 1 and 5:30 p.m. December 22. All performances are at the Community Center Theater, 1301 L Street. For more information, call (916) 808-5181 or visit

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