Sacramento Ballet’s principal dancer Alexandra Cunningham shares how she and The Sacramento Ballet Company dancers prepare for the region’s holiday tradition.
As the orchestra tunes their instruments there is a certain magic in the air. It’s almost opening night of Ron Cunningham’s The Nutcracker and I can hardly contain my excitement! All the memories of performing in this classic holiday production for the past 22nd years come flooding back to me.
From my humble beginnings as a Baby Bunny in the “Battle Scene”, I always knew that one day I wanted to be a professional dancer for The Sacramento Ballet. I would watch the ballerinas in awe as they accomplished their choreography with the confidence and grace that comes with years of experience. Still a youngster, and just starting my ballet training, I couldn’t imagine exactly how they did it — but I knew that I wanted to be just like the dancers on stage.
Now, 22 years later, there I am backstage in my Sugar Plum tutu preparing my pointe shoes and trying to calm the butterflies in my stomach. Yes, even after all these years, and after all the hours of rehearsal, I still get nervous before every show. I know all the choreography inside and out, but the thing about a live performance is that you never know what might happen on stage — and that thrill is one of the many reasons why I love to perform.
This year alone, the Company dancers and I have spent over 200 hours in rehearsal for The Nutcracker. This year’s Nutcracker is certainly not our first rodeo –if you add up all the years each Sacramento Ballet dancer has performed a version of the Nutcracker, we dancers bring audiences a total of 361 years of experience! For many, like myself, The Nutcracker was our first experience on stage and the reason why we eventually pursued a professional ballet career.
The life of a dancer is one that requires immense dedication, discipline, and vision. We start our workday with a one and a half hour ballet class to improve our ballet technique and build stamina, followed by up to five hours of rehearsal, six days a week. We rehearse our choreography for our Artistic Director or ballet master (equivalent to a coach) who constantly corrects us in an effort to helps us achieve our best possible performance. Over time, we develop tough skin like the calluses around our toes. Dancers are taught to strive for perfection, although we all know that it is unattainable. Our work never ends as there is always a next level to reach.
All the hard work and hours of training however become instantly worth it once we step onto the stage. The Nutcracker is particularly treasured by the dancers as, in our Sacramento version, we work with over 500 children throughout the performances. To see their smiles and genuine joy as they take the stage alongside us reminds us of the reason we pursued our chosen profession in the first place.
The Nutcracker is so much more than just a ballet performance — it’s a holiday tradition that celebrates our community in the most meaningful way. It’s truly a miracle to watch people from all walks of life spend their time and invest their hearts into making The Nutcracker a success. For me, it wouldn’t be the holiday season if I wasn’t backstage preparing to dance The Nutcracker. Now, as I prepare for opening night, I am filled with a special kind of happiness that comes from knowing I am part of a legacy that inspires the spirit of the holiday season for generations.
See The Sacramento Ballet’s hard work throughout the month of December. Ron Cunningham’s The Nutcracker will be performed December 12-22 at the Sacramento Community Center Theater. To learn more, visit its Sacramento365.com event listing here.
This blog post was written by The Sacramento Ballet’s principal dancer, Alexandra Cunningham.