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Arts Beat: Central Coast 'Nutcracker' performances go virtual

Courtesy of Civic Ballet SLO

For many, December includes an outing to "The Nutcracker" ballet, and for dance schools up and down the Central Coast, holiday show ticket sales make up a large part of the yearly operating budget. But with theaters closed, performances of the holiday classic will be posted online for home viewing.

"The Nutcracker," set to the music of Tchaikovsky, is a holiday production that delights audiences everywhere.

“It was first performed at the Mariinsky Theater in Russia in 1892,” said Cecily Stewart MacDougall. "It’s become incredibly popular and is performed by ballet companies all over the world."

MacDougall is director of education for State Street Ballet. She said the Santa Barbara dance company has performed "The Nutcracker" every year since 1994 with only two interruptions—a cancelled date during the Thomas fire, and now the pandemic.

In most years, the holiday production is an opportunity for students of ballet to share the stage with seasoned professionals.

“Usually there’s at least 200 that perform alongside the professional company,” MacDougall said.

MacDougall said the show appeals to audiences of all ages.

“There’s a lot of beautiful dancing, scenery, a live orchestra, and State Street Ballet’s version has comedic parts as well,” she said. 

Brian Asher Alhadeff is the artistic director of Opera San Luis Obispo. Since 2012, he has conducted live orchestra for multiple performances of "The Nutcracker."

“This year we were scheduled to do five performances with Civic Ballet San Luis Obispo and three performances with State Street Ballet,” said Alhadeff.

The holiday performances, he said, typically reach about 10,000 patrons on the Central Coast.

You can hear recordings from Opera SLO in the full-length 2019 version of "The Nutcracker" posted online by State Street Ballet, streaming online through Dec. 31. OperaSLO also partners with the Civic Ballet of San Luis Obispo—though that arts company has re-imagined a usual two-hour production into a 35-minute film.

“Basic story points put in place, as well as the music as well as cast-ability—those were the most important parts,” that went into the film version, said Drew Silvaggio.

Silvaggio is the artistic director and choreographer for Civic Ballet SLO. The new film, shot safely using no more than four dancers per scene, opened to a sold-out audience at SLO's Sunset Drive-in on December 20. The performance is now posted and available free online.

“We can take a situation like this and turn it into something...you know, it’s not the same as going to the theater, but it’s still equally as awesome,” said Silvaggio.

Since school-age children cannot experience "The Nutcracker" live this year, State Street Ballet and Opera SLO have created an educational program for youth. Alhadeff said the ballet often the first introduction for children to classical music and dance.

“It’s one of those pieces,” he said, “that just brings everyone together at the right time, with the right story and some of the most glorious music ever written.“

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.
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