On stage, the return of ‘The Nutcracker’ and the birth of a ballet company
Golden State Ballet brings ‘The Nutcracker’ back to the San Diego Civic after pandemic-fueled absence
“The Nutcracker” ballet has a storied history, one that begins with disappointment and ends with surprising success.
Critics reviled the 1892 Russian premiere, declaring the Sugar Plum Fairy too fat, the battle scene clumsy and the costumes tasteless. Even Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who composed the familiar score, considered the show “rather boring.”
Versions of “The Nutcracker” by the San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet elevated the work with exceptional choreographers and dancers, and by the 1960s, it became a staple in the ballet canon and an annual Christmas classic.
The newly launched Golden State Ballet intends to parallel that trajectory when it presents “The Nutcracker” at the San Diego Civic Theatre.
Last year, the pandemic prevented staging the annual holiday extravaganza at the 3,000-seat venue.
And that was the impetus for change.
“The resounding thought was, ‘How can we save ‘The Nutcracker,’” said Golden State Ballet’s artistic director Raul Salamanca.
“I think that, for us, not going for it would be a travesty. Really, that’s what we set out to do.”
Salamanca began rehearsals for “The Nutcracker” in October at the Golden State Ballet Academy, the ballet and Pilates training facility he opened with his wife, Cindy Huang, in 2018.
‘Dance like when you were a kid’
Inside the Grantville studio, Salamanca stood tall with his back to a mirrored wall, facing dancers stationed at free-standing barres in the middle of the room.
He cued a track of classical piano music and demonstrated an energetic but precise “chassé (to chase) to the fourth position and plié.”
As the dancers repeated the movement phrase, he punctuated the rhythm with an occasional finger snap or hand clap.
“You are already creating the momentum,” he emphasized during a break. “Use the energy in the movement to your advantage. The only thing that elevates us is the little details. Stop thinking of individual steps. When you get technical, you get cold in the heart. Dance like when you were a kid.”
Salamanca was 12 years old when his family, including two brothers and one sister, moved from Puerto Rico to Florida in 1992. He said he is still trying to figure out if he found dance or if dance found him.
But Salamanca affirms that the mentors in his life, such as ballet master Frank Galvez and the late, artistic director Magda Auñon, helped him to believe in the possibility of a lifelong career.
“Those people were so dedicated to their art form,” Salamanca recalled. “And they taught me how to love it. Once success started to come my way and I started to get recognized as a dancer in my own right, it changed everything for me.
“I knew by age 15 that I wanted to become a professional dancer, and there was nothing that would stop me. In ballet, if you don’t mind working really hard, then ballet can become a great vehicle for you to feel that you are a part of something special.”
As a professional dancer, Salamanca performed internationally, and at organizations such as Ballet Arizona, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, Ballet San Antonio and Boston Ballet.
At Boston Ballet, artistic director Mikko Nissinen encouraged Salamanca to invest in his future by teaching, choreographing and setting large-scale ballets.
“I always had an entrepreneurial bug, and I always liked business,” Salamanca said.
“Growing up in the 1980s and 90s, it was the American dream.”
The American dream began to materialize when Salamanca met his wife, Cindy, a Taiwanese guest dancer, at Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal in Canada. They married three years ago and are expecting their first child. They both teach at the Golden State Academy and received the Youth America Grand Prix’s “Outstanding Teacher Award” last year, while many of their students placed in top categories.
In April of this year, the couple won the YAGP’s “Outstanding School Award.”
More than 50 Golden State Academy students will perform in “The Nutcracker,” which opens for a weeklong engagement on Thursday.
It’s a lavish, million-dollar production and a monumental effort, even for well-established companies, with falling snow, bejeweled costumes and a mix of highly trained professional dancers and young students.
“The Nutcracker” was last presented at the Civic Theatre in 2019 by California Ballet, known for staging its annual holiday production for decades.
California Ballet founder Maxine Mahon retired in 2018 from the performing arm of the company, but she continues to maintain her for-profit California Ballet School.
In the fall of 2020, California Ballet offered leadership positions to Salamanca and Magda O’Neill, a former orchestra personnel manager for the San Diego Symphony.
Salamanca and O’Neill embraced the opportunity to oversee a professional performing company, but the financial and physical impact of the pandemic compromised any form of dance, from rehearsing to staging shows, including last year’s “The Nutcracker.”
Despite the bleak, COVID-19 climate, Salamanca and O’Neill realized that by implementing their combined skills, they “could get things done” and they made decisions with the future in mind.
“We knew that in order to move forward with having a ‘Nutcracker,’ we needed to start a new company,” said O’Neill, who serves as Golden State Ballet’s executive director.
“We got started this spring. On the donor side, we got some people to write fabulous checks to get us started, and we are so grateful. Now, we have a board of directors and a company of dancers who are on payroll. We can’t wait to open with ‘The Nutcracker.’”
In addition to accompaniment by the San Diego Symphony, “The Nutcracker” is enhanced by spectacular ballet duets that are technically challenging, requiring a level of strength and skill that makes those starring roles look effortless.
Watch for the Sugar Plum Fairy, who dances with her knightly Cavalier in the Grand Pas de Deux, the royal and dignified Snow King and Queen and the couple who perform the athletic, sensual Arabian dance.
Salamanca and O’Neill hope to see Golden State Ballet become an integral part of the community, with dancers representing diversity, collaborations with other arts organizations, world-class productions and outreach programs.
“I want it all to work out,” Salamanca said. “It’s something I want to give to the city. There are all these different cogs in a machine that need to be working together like an orchestra for us to succeed. I want a destination company that makes dancers want to come to San Diego. I want the company to thrive. I want it all.”
Golden State Ballet presents ‘The Nutcracker’
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16-17 and Dec. 21-22; 1 and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 19; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 18 and Dec. 23
Where: San Diego Civic Theatre, 1100 Third Ave., San Diego.
Tickets: $25 to $109
Phone: (619) 241-2565
COVID protocol: Proof of full vaccination required or negative COVID-19 PCR test within 72 hours of showtime or rapid antigen test performed by a medical professional within 12 hours of showtime. Masks required indoors.
Luttrell is a freelance writer.
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