Sugar Plum Dreams

Nutcracker1Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre celebrates 30 years and its 11th annual production of ‘The Nutcracker’

While watching Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre perform “The Nutcracker” for the first time at 9 years old, Melody Mennite knew it was something she had to be a part of. Twenty years later, the Santa Cruz native and professional ballerina considers “The Nutcracker” an old friend.

“I really enjoy that it’s the only thing in my career that I get to revisit every year,” says Mennite. “For the most part, the story, the music, and the overall feeling, you know, the magic of it doesn’t change.”

From her time training at the SCBT studio, to her current role as a Houston Ballet principal dancer, Mennite has climbed the ranks within the production—from dancing at age 10 as Clara, to performing this month as the Sugar Plum Fairy. This will be the seventh year that Mennite returns to Santa Cruz from Texas to guest dance in SCBT’s annual production.

In its 11th year, “The Nutcracker” runs Dec. 20-22 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium. Keeping with tradition, the production stars a cast of students from the SCBT studio, professional guest dancers, and a 49-piece live orchestra.

“The orchestra is one thing that sets us apart from most ‘Nutcrackers,’” explains Robert Kelley, co-executive artistic director for SCBT. “In this economic climate very few ballet companies, certainly the size of ours, have the revenue to hire this kind of orchestra.”

For more than a decade, however, a union orchestra of 49 musicians or more has been the standard for SCBT. Administrators, dancers and musicians have all described the orchestra as a “living, breathing entity” because it never performs the same way twice, and it sets the tone (literally and metaphorically) for the entire performance.

“People hear ‘The Nutcracker’ so much in a popular culture context, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it’s a work of genius,” says Pamela Martin, SCBT orchestra conductor. “There’s spontaneity to the orchestra—it’s a totally different experience.”

Mennite agrees that the unpredictability of the orchestra is what makes dancing to live music so exciting. More importantly, Mennite sees the combination of live music, live dance, and traditional holiday cheer in “The Nutcracker” as an important experience for children in the audience.

Nutcracker2“This production is geared very heavily toward children and it’s a great way to bring art into a young person’s life,” explains Mennite. “I can say from a professional standpoint, you don’t always have that chance to share with a young audience in other ballets.”

That emphasis on families combined with Kelley’s choreography, which stays as true to the original ballet as possible, makes SCBT’s production a classic holiday tradition that all generations can enjoy.

“I think in our fast-changing society, people like to hold onto tradition—and traditions are traditions because they stay the same,” says Kelley. “When I go to see ‘The Nutcracker’ I don’t want to be aware of big changes. It wouldn’t be my favorite holiday tradition if it wasn’t the same as last year.”

While there were some minute adjustments made to the choreography to accommodate new dancers, it is almost identical to the choreography that SCBT used 11 years ago. Likewise, the score, the venue, the tech crew and even the directors have remained the same over the years.

While “The Nutcracker” may seem frozen in time, audiences look forward to the ever-changing cast of dancers. Every year SCBT students as young as 4 are training and inevitably climbing the ranks just as Mennite did. As dancers get older and move on, a new generation fills their roles.

 “Our kids walk down the hallways and see images of our alumni on the walls and when they see someone like Melody in person, they are awestruck,” laughs Kelley. “The coolest thing about it is that they know that she came from Santa Cruz, they know she started in the studio, and they know it’s possible for them to be like her when they grow up.”

Cast this year as the Baby Mouse, 11-year-old Milana Beck has already set her sights on one day being cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy. In her fifth year participating in SCBT’s “The Nutcracker,” Beck is still learning how to be a ballerina, a student, and a teacher within the SCBT community.

“I’ve enjoyed working with the range of dancers because I’m in that in-between age where I can teach the younger dancers stuff that I’ve learned from the older dancers,” explains Beck. “I like teaching—it’s kind of like passing down. I can look up to the older dancers and the younger dancers look up to me.” 

Santa Cruz Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” runs Dec. 20-22 at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium, 307 Church St., Santa Cruz. For tickets and info, visit scbt.org or call 420-5260.

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