It’s prime season for the country’s most danced ballet, The Nutcracker. The myriad of moving parts in producing the holiday favorite were in evidence recently at the Anaheim Ballet’s rehearsal: dancers, big and small, costumes, sets, and the signature music coming from the instruments of musicians warming up.
Out of view, in the hallways behind the stage, Ava Gunderson kept a brisk pace checking on volunteers and checking on four women working under a tarp.
They’re altering costumes in less than perfect circumstances: It’s raining and dark. One holds a flashlight to help a seamstress with a needle and thread.
Gunderson is not the ballet’s costume designer; she’s a parent who’s leading a corps of two-dozen volunteers.
“We usually try to have one person who can really operate a machine, in case something rips and we can’t get it sewn fast enough,” she said.
The group will spend hundreds of hours sewing, hammering and driving kids around. Like most productions of the Nutcracker, Anaheim's is put on by a non-profit dance company tied to a ballet schools.
Larry Rosenberg, the Anaheim Ballet’s executive director, said the show simply wouldn’t go on without those parents.
“It just starts from the ground up, from the very first audition, you know there’s going to be costumes, sets, props, music issues, staging, theater, transport issues," Rosenberg said. "Everything we hope you don’t think about when you come see the performance.”
He would know. Rosenberg and his wife, artistic director Samra Rosenberg, have guided sugar plum fairies, mice, and Russian dancers through this most signature of holiday productions for 27 years.
Through all of it, he’s relied on people like Isabel Horsky. She flew in from Denver to help. Her two grandkids and 41-year-old daughter will be performing in the show. Her son-in-law is volunteering, too.
“The family that plies together stays together,” she snickered.
Her son in law, Ray Wyman, is making sure the props stay dry and are ready to go for the Nutcracker’s quick scene changes. He’ll put in nearly 100 hours of free labor in the months leading up to the production’s seven shows to give his kids the experience of a lifetime.
“I can’t think of anything that fortifies a child’s development than standing in front of a group of people waiting to be entertained," Wyman said. "There isn’t an educational opportunity like that on the planet, especially with schools cutting back on their arts programs, we don’t have these experiences."
Anaheim Ballet is the city’s resident ballet company. About 300 students – many of them on reduced or free tuition – enroll in the school’s ballet and jazz classes. It staged two shows at City National Grove of Anaheim and the entire production, including volunteers, is set to travel to Laughlin, Nevada to perform five shows on Christmas week.
Stagehand Dawn Dienes said she will take several unpaid days off from her teaching job for the trip. Her daughter will be performing as a bon bon and mouse.
"I get paid, just by her appreciation for me supporting what she’s doing," Dienes said. "She says, ‘Thanks mom, I’m so glad you’re here.’"
And with that, 12-year old Caitlin hurried onto the stage to hit her mark with the other dancers. Dienes said helping the company reflects what the season is about: spending time with loved ones and appreciating what you have.