Not a Tough Nut to Crack – State Street Ballet returns home after a successful tour for ‘The Nutcracker’

David Eck Photo
David Eck Photo

Santa Barbarans like to complain about the weather when it dips below, say, 65 degrees. Likewise, we also like to complain a bit about the number of “Nutcracker” productions in town. However, we should spare a thought for the many communities that rarely get a visit from the sugar plum fairy.

Durango, Colo., for example, loved the fact that our very own State Street Ballet is on tour with the Tchaikovsky holiday classic. Socorro, N.M., gave the company a standing ovation when it performed there. Now the ballet company returns for a series of hometown shows at The Granada.

David Eck Photo
David Eck Photo
Dancer Makala Hieshima plays the part of Clara. Caprice Studios Photo
Dancer Makala Hieshima plays the part of Clara.
Caprice Studios Photo
For eight of State Street Ballet’s 16 seasons, it has put on a modern “Hollywood Nutcracker.” But the reopening of The Granada changed that, and the company has since returned to a traditional Victorian performance.

“I wanted to produce a ‘Nutcracker at The Granada,’ says Artistic Director Rodney Gustafson. “It takes in the whole theater. You can look at the proscenium, the overhead and the stage as one bit picture.”

Gustafson had the sets redone in Moscow by a young designer who caught his eye while on tour several years ago. They have been designed to bridge the surreal and traditional worlds, as well as to fit the particular dimensions of The Granada to make it seem, Gustafson says, as if the theater and the set are of one entity. The Granada, he says, is the home of the production, and it should feel like home.

One of the benefits of a full ballet, he says, is the ability to change things here and there every year. The Spanish solo is now a female duet, and the snow chorus will be the biggest the company has done, with 16 dancers.

“It’s a dynamic process every year,” he says. “It’s not like a painting where you can’t change it.”

But going on the road allows the company to survive, and the touring productions have been spreading holiday cheer. The company incorporates local community children in its “Nutcracker” production wherever it goes (up to 50 in some cities), and organizes master classes in those cities.

“We want to take the elitism out of dance and make it accessible,” Gustafson says.

Because the company can’t take the younger dancers with them on tour, principal dancer Jennifer Phillips plays the lead of Clara outside of Santa Barbara, but when she returns, she will dance the Snow Queen. Phillips’ history in the Nutcracker goes back about 20 years, when she was one of many 6-year-old “Bon-Bon Girls” runing onstage, out from under a matron’s skirt.

“It’s a great feeling now, because the Bon-Bon part is one that we let the community dancers do. They’re so little and so adorable, and as Clara, I’m out there leading them around. It’s a fun, full-circle kind of thing.”

“You know they say that you should see at least one ‘Nutcracker’ when you are a child and then once when you are an adult,” Gustafson says. “It has become a part of the fabric of our society. It’s just one of those things, love it or hate it. I think there’s still a reason for it to exist and it represents the unity and joy of the season.”

When: 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: The Granada, 1214 State St.
Cost:$28 to $53
Information: (805) 899-2222,,

A fraction of the size of The Granada production but with just as much heart, the West Coast Ballet’s “A Gem of a Nutcracker” celebrates its 20th year of mounting the holiday classic and giving dance students a chance to perform alongside professionals.

Ellen Schipper has been putting the show together since 1990, designing and making the costumes, and bringing some of her school’s alumni back to dance. Other former members fill staff positions, making this an artistic family affair. The show is paid for by student fundraising.

“My project is to make ballet available to all,” says Schipper, who comes originally from Amsterdam and has danced in the Dutch national ballet. Schipper finds her school and herself surrounded by a lot of competition these days, much different than the three schools that existed back in 1990, and the different styles of dancing that have become popular since. However, she still persists, teaching classical ballet.

“It takes time to become graceful and listen to classical music and learn the things that classical ballet stands for. My students shine because of this,” she says. Since 1990, Schipper says, school demands on her students have also increased.

Schipper plays with the storyline according to the ability of students (and the size), from 6 years old up to 27. The choreography comes from Reid Olson of the Los Angeles Ballet, and Schipper has stayed with it since the beginning, seeing it as an element of trust between her and Olson.

Of the school’s 50 students, half will be onstage, but others help out backstage. There will be a special cameo performance by Christopher Story VI, conductor of the West Coast Symphony. Other special guests, courtesy of Janusphere Dance Company, include Anne-Sophie Rodriguez and Darion Smith as the sugar plum fairy and her cavalier, respectively, and Matthew Van Buskirk and Eun Jung Jung as the Snow King and Queen. Ingeborg van Dooren has contributed by making the mice masks, the Arabian costumes and some backdrop projections.

When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
Where: Center Stage Theater, 751 Paseo Nuevo (upstairs)
Cost:$26 adults, $21 students and seniors, $16 children under 12
Information: (805) 963-0408,

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