She was a diva the likes of which artistic director Ron Cunningham had never seen, not in more than a quarter century of productions of the beloved holiday classic “The Nutcracker” in Sacramento.
Her name is Lady Sif. As she waited for her star turn during an evening rehearsal inside the Sacramento Ballet’s midtown studio, the burly pit bull terrier’s tail flailed like a pinwheel, and her wide face betrayed a toothy smile.
“Line up the critter!” Cunningham shouted, signaling the beginning of Act I.
As a handler gently tugged her leash, Lady Sif made her way to the stage, stopping briefly to sniff the backside of a Doberman pinscher mix.
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For months, she had been just another discarded animal, a stray taken in by the Front Street Animal Shelter. Now she was a performer in a fairy tale ballet.
The postscript, if all went well, would be a permanent home for Lady Sif and other Front Street dogs who will be taking part in this year’s performances of “The Nutcracker,” which runs Dec. 6-21 at the Sacramento Community Center Theater.
At least one adoptable animal will appear in each of the ballet’s 13 performances of the holiday standard, which centers on young Clara Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve and her awakening to a world of magic and romance. In this year’s adaptation, the dogs play a role in the opening street scene, where they interact with bustling families and busy vendors; and may appear during a festive party scene at the Stahlbaums’ grand family home.
It is the first collaboration of its kind between the ballet and the downtown animal shelter, which in recent years has been aggressively promoting its animals through social media and live appearances in unexpected places. In addition to supervising the canine “guest stars” in the program, the shelter will bring other animals to the productions, showcasing them for adoption during intermission.
“We’re going to be exposing our animals to an entirely different demographic,” said Front Street manager Gina Knepp. “I would venture to guess that many folks in these audiences might go to a breeder to find a pet. Hopefully, we’ll open their eyes to the incredible dogs we have at Front Street.”
More than 500 youngsters from across the region and 30 professional dancers will appear in this year’s “Nutcracker,” which has been performed more than 650 times in Sacramento.
But during early rehearsals, the dogs were the center of attention.
As shelter staffers escorted Lady Sif into the studio on a recent evening, along with a Doberman mix named Mayflower and three smaller pups, the dancers swarmed them, cooing, offering kisses and accepting face licks. A brown mutt with floppy ears soon found his comfort zone in the arms of a slim ballerina in pink tights.
Shelter workers stood by with spray bottles and towels, prepared for the inevitable accident.
“It’s always a possibility that one of the dogs will tinkle on stage, but we’ll work it out,” said Knepp, who cradled an elderly Chihuahua mix named Gandolf.
A few other cities, including Birmingham, Ala., have featured shelter dogs in their “Nutcracker” productions. The Sacramento Ballet’s shows in the past have included a service dog for a child performer who used a wheelchair.
Featuring stray animals, and offering them for adoption during the show, is a whole new wrinkle, said the ballet’s new executive director, Caty Solace. The collaboration with Front Street helps create goodwill in the community and offers the ballet a chance to take advantage of the shelter’s growing social media presence, she said.
“We have a stage, a captive audience, a sense of romance,” Solace said. “And Front Street has a great social media platform and lots of people coming into its facility. It’s a wonderful partnership.”
The shelter and the ballet have been jointly marketing this year’s “very unique ‘Nutcracker,’” with fetching photos of dogs and dancers, in news releases and on Facebook. Individual ticket sales for the show are up about 15 percent compared with the past four years, Solace said.
With or without animals, “The Nutcracker” is one of the world’s most enduring productions, said Cunningham, who has directed about 500 of the holiday shows in Sacramento.
First published as a dark fairy tale by a German writer in 1816, its world premiere was in 1892 in Russia, set to music by composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. More than 50 years later, the San Francisco ballet introduced “The Nutcracker” to American audiences. This year marks its 27th production in Sacramento. Selected performances will feature live orchestral music by the Sacramento Philharmonic.
The images of young Clara battling the giant Mouse King, her rescue by the Nutcracker Prince, and journey to the magical snowflake forest and Land of Sweets have become a staple of the holiday season across the globe.
“I love ‘The Nutcracker’ because it’s a microcosm of family values, of community spirit, of giving,” Cunningham said. “It’s an idealized story that everyone can enjoy.”
The participation of the Front Street dogs has added a layer of excitement for performers preparing for the biggest production of the year, dancer Rick Porter said. “It adds something really special to this year’s ‘Nutcracker,’ ” said Porter, who shares his home with a Great Dane named Britton. “To be here at the end of the day with these animals is really awesome, and if we can help any of them get adopted, it would be amazing.”
Shelter staffers have chosen the canine “guest stars” carefully, Knepp said.
“These dogs are highly adoptable, very social, good with families,” she said. “We want every single one of them to find a new home.”
Already, three of the pups that took part in rehearsals have been claimed – including the tongue-lolling Lady Sif, named after a comic book warrior goddess. Lady will join a family who spotted her at the shelter just a few days after her first rehearsal.
The good news? After months of life as a shelter dog, she has a new home, said Bobby Mann, Front Street’s public relations director.
The bad news? Her diva days are over. She will be replaced in the show by a pup still looking for the perfect human match.
Call The Bee’s Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Follow her on Twitter @Cynthia_Hubert.
If you go
What: Sacramento Ballet’s “The Nutcracker”
When: Dec. 6-21
Where: Sacramento Community Center Theater
Tickets: Tickets range from $19 to $80. They can be purchased at the Community Center box office, (916) 806-5181; the ballet studio box office, 1631 K St.; or www.sacballet.org/nutcracker-tickets/