Dance Matters: The Gift of Youth
Photo by Jay Mather, Courtesy Sac Ballet.
For some companies, year after year, The Nutcracker is mainly an exercise in exhaustion. Not so at Sacramento Ballet. “I love The Nutcracker. I am Mr. Nutcracker,” says co-director Ron Cunningham, whose production, running Dec. 9–23, returns for its 29th season this year. “It’s about tradition, family, and holiday spirit.”
In addition to those things, it’s about the kids and the community. Approximately 150 students crowd onstage every evening, with almost 500 kids participating each year. Some come from the affiliated school, but most forge their bond with Sacramento Ballet solely through The Nutcracker. Cunningham, who runs the company with his wife, Carinne Binda, enjoys watching their progress. “Nutcracker is a microcosm in itself about our art form. At 6 years old, you can be a mouse, at 7 or 8 a Mother Ginger child, all the way up to Waltz of the Flowers.” Children in the audience can see their counterparts onstage in every scene of the ballet, including most of the divertissements.
Dancer Chloe Horne made her Nutcracker debut in Sac Ballet’s production as a (nervous) cherub at age 8. Fifteen years later, she wields the benevolent force of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s wand. “When I’m wearing the pink Sugar Plum tutu and have my crown and my wand, I have so much power,” she laughs. “You are magic to them. Having the kids backstage with us reminds me of how magical Nutcracker is.”
Cunningham encourages family bonding in the party scene so that the families in the audience can see themselves reflected onstage. “I tell the dancers they have to know their kids’ names. I encourage the company to give them little gifts at their premiere. I remind the party scene parents—most of them are not married, none with children—‘This is your dress rehearsal for becoming a parent.’ ”
Sac Ballet does extensive community outreach for all its productions—dancer-organized pub crawls, a blood drive for Dracula. But having so many kids in The Nutcracker forges a special connection. “It brings the families into ballet in a great way,” says Horne. “Once they’ve been in The Nutcracker, we’re all in this special club together.”