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The Civic Ballet strives to make The Nutcracker new each year--this time with the addition of a live orchestra

As far as anyone at the Civic Ballet can recall, The Nutcracker has never been performed to a live orchestra on the Central Coast. It’s too complicated. It’s too expensive. And, as dance companies know, the community already flocks to the annual holiday classic anyway. The Nutcracker is the lifeblood of ballet in America, providing companies all over the country with their biggest and most reliable source of income. But it can also be seen as a leech sucking the art form dry: So much money, time, resources, and talent are invested into the same annual production that little is left for more experimental, contemporary work that pushes ballet forward. (Is it any surprise that when the average American thinks of “ballet,” he or she pictures a Russian Christmas production from 1892?)

click to enlarge SUGAR PLUM DREAMS :  Jane Selna plays the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Civic Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic. - PHOTO BY BARRY GOYETTE
  • SUGAR PLUM DREAMS : Jane Selna plays the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Civic Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas classic.

So imagine you’re Civic Ballet Artistic Director Drew Silvaggio. Your style tends toward the contemporary, the unfussy, and the avant-garde, yet you’re in your ninth year of directing The Nutcracker for a company that’s been mounting the production every year since 1977. How the hell are you going to keep this thing interesting—perhaps even engaging Central Coast audiences to take a chance on something original? More importantly, how are you going to keep yourself from going insane?

Silvaggio already re-casts and re-choreographs The Nutcracker each time. But this year, Nutcracker regulars will be treated to something new: a live orchestra performing Tchaikovsky’s iconic score.

The idea came from Opera SLO’s Brian Asher Alhadeff, whom New Times recently sat down with, along with Silvaggio. (“The art rag, baby!” Silvaggio exclaimed, when Alhadeff asked what paper I was from again.) I asked how the idea got started.

“Can I tell the story? It’s a wonderful story,” said Alhadeff, an enthusiastic and talented musical director with the beginnings of what I’ve always thought of as composer hair.

“Last year,” he explained, “I was newly hired in my position, and I figured, you know, I want to see all the shows in town. And there was a Nutcracker. And if I don’t see a Nutcracker every year, it’s foreboding of a bad year the next year. So I went to Drew’s Nutcracker, and it’s a crazy Nutcracker. Have you ever seen his Nutcracker? It’s insane. It’s totally not like any other Nutcracker. It’s got six additional pieces, things are out of order; it’s really exciting. But it was with canned music, like every other Nutcracker is.”

Posing for a photo in the lobby with the Sugar Plum Fairy, Alhadeff whispered the idea into her ear. The Sugar Plum Fairy was longtime local dancer Harmony True, who made Alhadeff’s wish come true with a sprinkle of fairy dust and flick of her wand. I may be editorializing; True introduced Alhadeff to Silvaggio, who made securing a live orchestra his new goal.

“Every good idea stops because of money. I didn’t want this idea to do that. I kind of just said we’re doing it,” Silvaggio explained. “It’s like the JFK speech, where he says, ‘We choose to go to the moon.’ It was really like that. I said, ‘We choose to have the orchestra.’”

For this artistic director, no goal is too lofty, no simile too grandiose.

“JFK goes on in the speech and says going to the moon is great, but the idea of going to the moon will organize what we do as a country, and it will show the best in our country, and make our country strive for something,” Silvaggio said. “And that’s really what it did for the board: We had this crazy, out-of-this-world idea of having a live orchestra, and it organized us all … To move beyond, and to do something new, it takes a new structuring. It raised the stakes.”

- CRACK THIS NUT!:  The San Luis Obispo Civic Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker takes the stage Dec. 8 and 9 at the Performing Arts Center. Tickets cost $18 to $52. Visit or -
  • CRACK THIS NUT!: The San Luis Obispo Civic Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker takes the stage Dec. 8 and 9 at the Performing Arts Center. Tickets cost $18 to $52. Visit or

Raising money to pay the orchestra was a feat by itself—though, cleverly, the Civic Ballet will be splitting the $50,000 fee with Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet, who has also hired the SLO Opera to provide live accompaniment to its Nutcracker.

Once the financial aspect was taken care of, however, the creative challenge for both Silvaggio and Alhadeff waited to be tackled. I asked how the choreographer and the music director found a common language, a way to bridge the gap between those who make music and those who dance to it—especially since Silvaggio’s version of the ballet takes liberties with the order of the original.

“My job as a ballet conductor is to serve the choreographer,” he said. “One of the great things about working with an orchestra is they have the freedom to customize music to their specific dancers.”

And such dancers! The expressive and virtuosic Jane Selna is this year’s Sugar Plum Fairy, who partners with Nutcracker Ryan Lawrence—a onetime local recently returned from living in the Netherlands—in what Silvaggio calls “the best pas-de-deux I’ve ever seen in my nine years of directing the Civic Ballet.” Lawrence also choreographed one of the ballet’s many divertissements, turning a short Spanish-infused piece into a rite-of-passage tale starring veteran dancer Jackie Lee (who has performed in every Civic Ballet Nutcracker since the company’s inception) and daughter Jenna. The precociously gifted Lexi Smith and Virginia Harding share the coveted role of Clara.

Alhadeff began getting requests from dancers—tentatively at first, he says, as if they weren’t sure it was allowed—to make slight alterations to the score to better fit the needs of the choreography.

“My talent in ballet is to be able to follow someone else’s direction, to take my ego out of it and to make an orchestra of 40 people tailor their work to this man’s vision,” the musical director went on.

This meant, for instance, changes to tempo and augmentations in percussion to underscore climactic moments. And then there’s the fact that Silvaggio often drastically rearranges the order of many scenes.

“One of the biggest challenges was that this Nutcracker was so unusual. What Drew’s Nutcracker does is it restructures that Nutcracker,” Alhadeff said. “It’s very daunting. My masters at Cal State L.A. was a complete re-orchestration of Puccini’s opera. My dissertation was a complete analysis of two operas. This is way more than both of those put together. But it’s so rewarding, because this is a historic event.”

Remember that unpleasant thing I said earlier, likening The Nutcracker to a leech? Well, this one, with its bold re-imaginings of the possible, seems only to have strengthened the company, opening up discussion about what other crazy ideas can become reality. Future collaborations between Opera SLO and the Civic Ballet already include a fall 2013 production of Carmen, but Alhadeff
and Silvaggio have more experimental projects in mind.

“We’ve already had preliminary conversations about more contemporary work that we could do with the orchestra,” Silvaggio divulged. “You know, a small chamber orchestra, or a synth orchestra, all 1980s. No! I’m kidding.

“That would be cool, though.”

Arts Editor Anna Weltner dances a role of her own design, for herself, each year. Contact her at


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