Like many other ballet companies, Santa Barbara's State Street Ballet celebrates Christmas with the Nutcracker, and like many of them, have their own variation of the Nutcracker story. Conceived by SSB's artistic director, Rodney Gustafson, and choreographed by Gustafson and Gary McKenzie, the Hollywood Nutcracker is set in a movie mogul's home in the 1930s. Drosselmeyer is a famous director, while the sugar plum fairy is Greta, his new star. The villainess who becomes the Queen of the Rats, is Gruella de Mille, an over-the-hill actress who is now ignored by Drosselmeyer. Clara is the daughter of the Stahlbaums who own a major Hollywood studio, and idolizes Greta. All the familiar Nutcracker story elements are there: the Christmas party is held at the Stahlbaums' home, and a slightly mysterious Drosselmeyer arrives with wonderful gifts, of which a Nutcracker doll launches Clara's journey, where she meets some gangster rats, sees the land of the sweets, and finds her Nutcracker prince.
Perhaps given the familiar story, most of the Hollywood Nutcracker thankfully consists of dancing, with very little downtime for mime or plot advancement. Where plot needs to be pushed forward, mime is well-integrated with the dancing.
This Nutcracker requires a large cast, and with a small company like SSB, many dancers danced several parts, with four costume changes being common. Perhaps because of the large number of dancing roles, the company looked tired on Saturday night's performance, which had been preceded by a matinee. Lifts and some jumps looked sloppy, and dancers were visibly struggling with their steps. Whatever the reason, Sunday's only performance improved over Saturday's, with much more secure dancing from everyone, and more energy in the dancing.
Nicole Grand, a new member of SSB this year, danced Clara impressively on both days. Characterized by an especially steady balance, and controlled turns (especially attitude and arabesque) en pointe, Grand turned in a believably child-like Clara who clearly communicated her emotions and intentions. Along with spunky newcomer Olivia Ramsay, I look forward to seeing her in more roles as she develops as an artist.
David Fonnegra, another new member of SSB, from Miami City Ballet, turned in an adequate performance as the Nutcracker prince. In a role with many jumps requiring bravura technique, Fonnegra executed the steps completely, but did not generate much excitement. Fonnegra partnered Grand steadily.
SSB stalwart Alberto Colon, Jr. performed Drosselmeyer with his usual high energy and style, playing to the crowd, and reacting well to other characters on stage. In this Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer plays a major role, appearing in and leading Clara through her dreams. With many difficult jumps, especially in his Spanish solo, Colon dispatched his jumps with energy, and partnered steadily.
Jennifer Batbouta danced Greta, who becomes the sugar plum fairy. In an unusual staging for the grand pas de deux, with four men dancing the man's part, Batbouta had good lines and extensions, performing the fast choreography well. She deserves special praise for being literally tossed about in the final variation, while making it look normal and casual.
Silver Barkes danced Gruella de Mille with evil glee. Along with Samuel Beckman, who continues to impress with his ballon, especially in the toy soldier solo, Barkes performed a slinky Arabian, with many difficult, but successful lifts, and emphasis on big extensions.
Finally, the corps did well to perform so many costume changes, and danced the many different pieces well. SSB doesn't have as stratified a ranking system as a traditional company, and so many soloists (especially given the casting requirements) danced in the corps pieces. The men were hilarious and well-characterized as the gangster rats in zoot suits, while the women covered the snow dance, the Mirlitons, the Chinese, and the Waltz of the Flowers with distinction where it would have been easy to lapse into homogeneity.
The costumes were highlighted by the rat masks, designed by Daniel C. Nyiri, and reflected the 1930s. There were quotes, in the choreography as well as the costumes, from famous movies of the time.