Dance Review: Live music a must with technically-strong ‘Nutcracker’

The Sacramento Ballet unwrapped this season’s version of the holiday classic “The Nutcracker” on Saturday. The show, which runs through Dec. 23 at the Community Center Theater, quickly grabbed the audience of children and adults and swept them up in a holiday tradition with notable changes from last year’s production.

The night’s house was not a sellout, but those in attendance were treated to beautiful dancing and a live performance of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s familiar score by the Sacramento Philharmonic, conducted by Henrik Jul Hansen. This combination of artists breathed life into what is always a highly paced production.

(The live music, which wasn’t part of the 2012 program, is being offered for select shows during this run.)

Co-artistic director Ron Cunningham’s 26th “Nutcracker” is well-populated, between the company dancers and the more than 160 children who perform from start to finish. (More than 10,000 kids have participated since Cunningham came on board.)

With his co-artistic director and wife, Carinne Binda, the two continue to tweak, adding delightful touches.

Cunningham himself opened the show as the loveable Dr. Drosselmeyer, tinkering in his workshop as families and street vendors are busy outside.

When he leaves, he gets pounded by snowballs from some pesky kids on their way to the big Christmas party at the Stahlbaum home. That’s where the toymaker turns into a magician, wowing the partygoers – young and old – with his tricks.

A favorite? The life-size Columbine doll dances with Drosselmeyer, and the Vivandiere and Soldier dolls dance around him.

Of course the party focuses on Clara Stahlbaum (a charming Carly Stewart on opening night; the casts rotate) who receives the gift of a toy nutcracker from Drosselmeyer, only to see it broken by frisky brother Fritz (Caleb Nyborg).

Things get interesting as night falls and Clara’s dream takes the rest of the show on a journey to the Snowflake Forest, through the clouds (with angels and cherubs) and finally to the Kingdom of Sweets.

The “Transformation and Battle” scene is action-packed (teeny tiny mice, a Mouse King, big mice soldiers, Christmas dolls and an adorable baby mouse and baby bunny).

Here we see the nutcracker toy magically turn into a living Nutcracker (played by Stewart’s real-life brother, Alex Stewart) to escort Clara through her dream.

In the Snowflake Forest, Lauryn Winterhalder and Stefan Calka are pristine and poised as the Snow Queen and King in one of the show’s most beautiful scenes. It closes Act 1.

The cast, including the children, puts its dancing and acting skills to work once Clara and the Nutcracker are introduced to the Sugar Plum Fairy (Alexandra Cunningham) and her Cavalier (Richard Porter). They listen to Clara’s story about the battle and how she got there.

Her reward? Treats from the kingdom’s tiniest cooks and a front-row seat to the “Divertissement” of characters who honor her – Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and those high-flying Russian dancers.

Sarah Hicks expertly leads the red-and-white striped Candy Canes with hoops, and Mother Ginger (a very statuesque Michael Separovich) allows her brood of eight darlings out from under her oversized skirt for a much-applauded romp.

The Waltz of the Flowers features the ballet’s most endearing score and an irresistible turn by Ava Chatterson as the Rose.

The Act 2 highlight falls to Cunningham and Porter in the Grand Pas de Deux, a performance to rave about. In their duets, her extension is so in sync with each note and his partnering is authoritative.

For sure, Cunningham’s solo turn is one of the most difficult pieces of choreography in the performance, featuring 18 fouettés. She dazzles.

Kudos to the costumes by Theresa Kimbrough and Steve Odehnal’s lighting.

Longtime fans of the Sacramento Ballet take note that former principal dancer Kirsten Bloom comes out of retirement for one performance as the Sugar Plum Fairy. That show is at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 22.

And, as an added treat, the last performance on Dec. 23 will feature four Sugar Plum Fairies and their Cavaliers.

A follow-up to the live music: There’s simply no comparison when musicians and dancers come together for a show like “The Nutcracker.” It truly becomes a living, breathing performance.

Let’s hope this artistic partnership can work for all shows next season. Everyone benefits.


When: (performances with live music) 1 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Dec. 20 and 1 p.m. Dec. 23

(performances to recorded music) 7 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, 2 p.m. Dec. 21, 1 and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 22

Where: Community Center Theater, 1301 L. St., Sacramento

Tickets: $19-$90 (children’s tickets are for ages 12 and under; prices vary depending on seat selection and if the show features live or taped music); available at or (800) 225-2277.