Review: Amid Thomas Fire, State Street Ballet ‘Nutcracker’ Prince Saves Santa Barbara

Release Date: December 24,2017

After Dec. 16 cancellation from wildfire’s imminent threat, State Street Ballet show goes on with triumphant performance Dec. 17

Guest artist Francois Llorente, as Cavalier, helped take this year’s State Street Ballet performance of The Nutcracker to an important new level. Click to view larger
Guest artist Francois Llorente, as Cavalier, helped take this year’s State Street Ballet performance of The Nutcracker to an important new level. (David Bazemore photo)

The Thomas Fire came dangerously close to Santa Barbara last Saturday and after more than a week of off-again on-again terror, stinging air pollution, falling ash and empty shops as people stayed home in droves, it looked like normalcy would be AWOL for several more days, the fire’s unpredictability a major angst factor for the entire community.

Several performing arts groups were forced to cancel their Saturday shows, including State Street Ballet, which had no choice but to shut down its matinee and evening performances of artistic director Rodney Gustafson’s acclaimed production of The Nutcracker at The Granada Theatre.

Canceling shows means lost revenue, and holiday shows like The Nutcracker balance budgets. An ominous, smoke-filled evening did not bode well for State Street Ballet’s last holiday revenue opportunity, the Sunday matinee on Dec. 17.

Miracles happen! Sunday dawned clear as nearly 9,000 firefighters had successfully worked the blaze away from Santa Barbara overnight. Word spread by email and social media that State Street Ballet’s 2 p.m. performance of Piotr Tchaikovsky’s exhilarating masterpiece would take place after all, and a giddy crowd gathered at the box office to pick up tickets or see if any were still available.

As the curtain rose Sunday afternoon on State Street Ballet’s sparkling, high-energy Nutcracker, a quiet homage was also palpable in the house for those dancers deprived of their opportunity to perform because of Saturday’s fire cancellations. To those hard-working and dedicated artists, a special bravi tutti!

The gentle opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s spellbinding overture, conducted with scintillating energy and flair by Brian Asher Alhadeff and performed stylishly by the Opera San Luis Obispo Grand Orchestra, cast worries about the Thomas Fire aside as Clara (Clara Morando) and her Nutcracker Prince (Nickolas Topete); Fritz (Bennett Ruehlman); Mother Ginger (Sergei Domrachev) and her bonbons (students of Gustafson Dance); the Sugar Plum Fairy (Denise Mendonça) and her Cavalier (guest artist Francois Llorente) transported an exhausted community to the Land of Sweets.

Eager to be enthralled by anything other than evacuation orders, disbelief was the order of the day, the audience eagerly surrendering to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s enchanting story about a toy nutcracker that magically comes to life as a handsome prince and transports his human companion, the young Clara, to a world of fantasy and adventure. Tchaikovsky’s timeless masterpiece from 1892 gave a 21st-century audience respite and sweet vibes about community and good fortune.

In collaboration with SSB ballet master Gary McKenzie, including additional choreography by SSB artistic staff Marina Fliagina and Megan Philipp, Gustafson has re-choreographed the original Petipa version of The Nutcracker, tightening the storyline and picking up the pace. The result, for some years now part of SSB’s in-house and touring repertory, is a Nutcracker that is charming, fresh, and a delight to the eye and ear.

Recently home from their annual Western tour presenting The Nutcracker to audiences in Spokane, Wash., and Durango, Colo., including two sold-out performances in Spokane, the company could not have been in better professional mettle Sunday afternoon. The corps turned in finely parsed ensemble work — precise, elegant, with richly detailed footwork — particularly the uniquely beautiful Gustafson take on “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Simple but evocative sets; early 1900s period costumes designed by Christina Giannini in blue, lavender and earth hues; shticks of all sorts, and cute ones at that for various mice, rats, soldiers and assorted minor characters; brilliant comedic cameos by company dancers Mauricio Vera (Grandmother), Gary McKenzie (Drosselmeyer), Sergei Domrachev (Mother Ginger) and Cecily Stewart (Maid), together with virtuoso dancing by guest artist Francois Llorente (Cavalier) during his famous Grand Pas de Deux with Deise Mendonça at the end of Act II, gave sheen and professionalism to the already colorful production.

Company members John Christopher Piel and Marika Kobayashi (Harlequin and Columbine Dolls), Meredith Harrill (Dewdrop Fairy) and with professional track student Alvaro Oquita (The Stahlbaums), together with newer company members James Folsom (Snow King), Anna Carnes (Rat Queen) and Saori Yamashita (Snow Queen), perked up the wow factor for a lively two hours or so of great music and professional classical ballet.

It must have been a scramble, pulling Sunday’s performance from the brink of cancellation. Hearty handshakes are in order all round for an inspiring success!

Noozhawk contributing writer Daniel Kepl can be reached at

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