Nuts to this

Sacramento Community Center Theater

1301 L St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 808-5291

“Are you a parent?” A no-nonsense woman wearing a Sacramento Ballet volunteer nametag cornered me as I entered the studio. “You’ll have to wait outside.”

No way. I’d been outside and it was a madhouse. Little girls in black leotards and pink tights or pink leotards and black tights or spangled leotards and no tights talked and stretched and twirled on every inch of sidewalk. Well, every inch of sidewalk that wasn’t taken up by their parents’ folding chairs.

The line for the Sacramento Ballet’s Nutcracker children’s auditions stretched halfway around the block of 17th and K Streets last Saturday afternoon. Families spread blanket picnics on concrete. Merchants hawked smoothies and cookies. Some parents competed: “So, Britney decided not to audition this year?” Others commiserated: “Have you done this before? I have no idea what’s going on!” Toddlers snoozed on lounge chairs, oblivious.

I wove a crooked path to the door—so many buns, so much Aqua Net— only to meet a phalanx of volunteers charged with the task of keeping pesky stage parents outside. That day’s round of auditions, just one of three audition periods, was scheduled to last seven and a half hours and cycle through several hundred children. For the first three hours, 29 boys and 120 girls would compete for casting in The Nutcracker’s party scene, where the coveted roles of Clara and Fritz are assigned. Try-outs for candy canes, Chinese attendants, angels, soldiers and reindeer would follow. One nagging stage mom could throw everyone off.

So could one clueless reporter, who couldn’t figure out where to sit. The audition panel, headed by Artistic Director Ron Cunningham and Children’s Cast Coordinator Marla Quinn, occupied the only chairs in the otherwise empty rehearsal space. To avoid making the children more nervous, I slouched in a corner where most wouldn’t see me.

The boys filed in wearing T-shirts numbered 31 to 59. They looked like perfect gentlemen. Then the short attention spans kicked in.

Cunningham demonstrated an eight-count routine that largely consisted of marching forward. The most studious pranced in his wake like Christopher Robin in ballet slippers. The rest mugged for each other, gazed into space, or lurched along with expressions that read, “My mother made me do this.” Cunningham repeated his directions over and over, as if for the hearing impaired. He tried coaxing smiles, to no avail. I began to appreciate the enormous task of incorporating almost 500 children into The Nutcracker each year.

After the boys performed the routine in groups of five, the judges began whispered deliberations and the dancers got rowdy. They cast shadow puppets and jostled one another. They wandered off and had to be retrieved by volunteers. They made fart noises and blamed them on their neighbors.

Perhaps they knew what I had yet to discover: ballet boys are rare. The judges cast every one, although they later spent several minutes quietly assigning the most rambunctious to separate casts.

Having followed the boys’ audition to its flatulent finish, I was surprised when the girls quietly toed into the room.

“Hi girls!” Cunningham said.

“Hiiiiiiiii!” they chorused, flashing huge pageant smiles.

Unlike the “left foot, right foot” instructions the boys received, the girls’ were almost entirely in French: arabesque, demi-pointe, pas de bourrée. They gave Cunningham their entire attention. In six rounds of auditions, not one spoke out of turn.

Perhaps they knew what I had yet to discover: Sacramento is lousy with little girls who want to dance The Nutcracker. If they want a shot at Clara, they’d better focus.

After two hours, 24 female dancers left the studio victoriously clutching party-scene rehearsal schedules. Another 31 were cast in the prologue, and the rest were gently encouraged to get back in line and try for another part. A candy cane maybe, but not Clara. Not this year.

Outside, the queue swelled with would-be angels and reindeers. In the alley, little girls wept. Some threw water bottles or scuffed their slippers on concrete. Finally allowed to be of use, parents scooped up their disappointed dancers. “I’m proud of you for trying,” they whispered. “Maybe next year.”