The beauty of seeing the Sacramento Ballet's "The Nutcracker" as the holiday season kicks off is simple. It's an early gift that keeps giving long after the curtain closes.
You can see it year after year, yet co-artistic directors Ron Cunningham and Carinne Binda always manage to tweak the show just enough to make it feel fresh and special.
That's why Friday's opening-night performance of "The Nutcracker" at the Community Center Theater received such an enthusiastic response from the capacity audience.
It was a visual and artistic delight, even though because of budget reasons it was performed using a recorded version of Tchaikovsky's score. Before the show, members of the Sacramento Philharmonic quietly passed out fliers outside the theater asking folks to support the ballet and help bring the musicians back to the orchestra pit for the 2013 run.
This being the 25th season Cunningham has unwrapped "The Nutcracker" in Sacramento, Friday night was magical, especially for the younger performers.
With more than 500 children taking part through the end of the run, Cunningham probably has parents in the audience who danced in the show and who are now watching their kids perform.
And these kids – from the tiny Christmas dolls and cooks to the preteen and teenage soldiers and angels – make the show a real treat. The children execute their stints on stage (brief in most cases) with poise, enthusiasm and big smiles.
Asked by a fellow audience member to pick a favorite kid scene, I shook my head.
Cunningham's Act 1 Christmas party at the Stahlbaums' home has lots of dancing and merriment as Clara (danced opening night by Clare Agustin) and her pesky brother Fritz (danced by Jackson Margolis) can hardly contain themselves until the other kids and their parents arrive. (Their roles will alternate with Clara McNatt and Brandt Porteus, and Abigail Goehring and Noah Vasquez.)
The party kids dance with each other and their parents, and are treated to a magic show by Dr. Drosselmeyer in a role Cunningham himself performs, alternating with Bruce King.
The battle scene between the Nutcracker, the Mouse King and platoons of soldiers and mice is probably the one younger audience members enjoy most.
Act 2 travels through the Kingdom of Sweets and opens with cherubs and angels twirling their way through the clouds. Clara and her Nutcracker escort are then treated to a divertissement of Spanish, Arabian and Chinese acts, hula-hooping candy canes, the precise and perfect Marzipan, the high-flying Russian dancers and, of course, Mother Ginger and her brood of eight little darlings turning cartwheels and watching "Mom" cavort in the background.
For as much as the children deliver the magic of this fantasy, the ballet's company dancers do the heavy lifting (no pun intended) that brings audience members to the edges of their seats or simply ooh-ing and ahh-ing.
Again, it's too hard to pick any one special moment. Surely Alexandra Cunningham and Christopher Nachtrab were pristine as the Snow Queen and King. With snowflakes falling and snowflakes dancing, Cunningham and Nachtrab's forest scene is spectacular.
The Waltz of the Flowers has perhaps the most familiar piece of music with beautiful costumes by Theresa Kimbrough and elegant dancing by the Rose (Alexandra Cunningham again), her cavaliers and the other flowers.
Ron Cunningham sets the choreography bar at its highest with the grand pas de deux by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. It's one of the most technically difficult dancing partnerships any company can take on.
On Friday, Amanda Peet and Stefan Calka did the honors. "The Nutcracker" pas de deux doesn't carry the raw emotion of, say, "Romeo & Juliet," but it's as lovely a pairing as you'll see.
Company dancers also rotate roles through the run of the show, and longtime ballet fans will be treated to some new faces during this gift.
"The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 23.
Next up? The world premiere of Cunningham's "The Great Gatsby" will be performed Feb. 7-10 at the Community Center Theater.
What: The Sacramento Ballet presents Ron Cunningham's Silver Anniversary version of the classic holiday show.
Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L St., Sacramento
When: 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Dec. 21, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec 22, and 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 23
Tickets: $18-$75 at www.tickets.com or the Community Center box office
Running time: About two hours, with one intermission