The front lobby of the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet’s studio is a minefield for the unaware, much like the area surrounding the Christmas tree the morning of Dec. 25.
Ballet slippers abound; a handful of dancers stretching out; parents finding any place they can to rest their tired legs.
The studio at 127 W. Canon Perdido St. is far from a business — it’s home.
And not just for the dozens of dancers that pour in countless hours to learn and perfect the art of classical dance, but also to the hundreds of parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends that it takes to support the dreams of aspiring ballerinas.
“I feel comfortable leaving my own daughter here, the teachers, kids and staff are family,” said Elizabeth Reiter, the vice president of the SBFB’s board of directors.
“That’s the ultimate compliment.”
And Ms. Reiter would know, learning to dance at the Goleta School of Ballet (now the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet), making her debut in the Nutcracker in 1978 — a production that her 11-year-old daughter, Ember, will participate in for the sixth consecutive year on Dec. 14 and 15 at the Arlington Theatre.
Ms. Reiter came out from under Mother Ginger’s skirt some 41 years ago, something she watched Ember do in her own Nutcracker debut as a 6-year-old.
Today, both perform in the Nutcracker production, with Ms. Reiter’s husband, Eddie, joining in a non-dancing role as a butler.
“If you can’t beat them, join them,” said Mr. Reiter, a commercial fisherman by day. “It has given me a whole new respect for the commitment it takes to dance classical. To be able to participate and watch by my wife and daughter, it’s incredible to see it up close.”
While most 11-year-olds shy away from doing pretty much anything with their parents, Ember smiles from ear to ear when talking about how she gets to dance with her parents.
“It’s actually really cool, it shows me how much they support me,” Ember said. “Doing this with my family makes it even more fun.”
The SBFB’s Artistic Director, Aimee Lopez, pointed to multiple families that have stayed involved through the decades, with generations of both production hands and dancers influencing the company, not only with the Nutcracker, but also the yearlong classes that help dancers grow and find new roles in the holiday production.
“The show is built on family, it’s all about passing along the tradition,” said Ms. Lopez, just minutes after another evening of rehearsals.
Ms. Reiter believes that the Nutcracker has been the backbone of the SBFB surviving changes in ownership, as well as studio space.
“Each year, we have the Nutcracker to focus on, and it has been so solid through the years,” Ms. Reiter said. “It has stood the test of time. So many productions come and go, but the Nutcracker has been a constant.”
A rich history
The SBFB is not your fly-by-night, overnight success, instead borne out of two professionals that relocated from San Mateo to Goleta in 1964.
Robert and Carol Hanlin established the Goleta School of Ballet after successful careers with the San Francisco Ballet, Eugene Loring’s Dance Players in Hollywood and Broadway musicals, amongst other endeavors.
Just four years later, they also established the Goleta Civic Ballet for their more advanced dancers.
By 1975, the Civic Ballet, now a not-for-profit company, had partnered with the Santa Barbara Symphony on the Nutcracker.
“The Hanlins brought a lot of knowledge to the area,” said Valerie Huston, a longtime coach with the SBFB. “They helped establish classical dancing in Santa Barbara.”
The Hanlins stepped aside in 1991, with Denise Rinaldi, an alumna of the Civic Ballet, and Michele Hulse taking the reins.
Ms. Rinaldi took over solely in 2006, with the Santa Barbara Ballet Center and Santa Barbara Festival Ballet merging in 2010. She’d retired as the director in 2016, with Ms. Lopez, also an alumna, taking over.
“I grew up in the school, I danced there as a teenager, left, came back, then teaching there,” Ms. Lopez said. “Ms. Rinaldi, she had known me since I was a tween. We’ve managed to keep this in the family, we just keep passing it down from generation to generation.”
A commitment to inclusion
Part of the SBFB’s goal for the next generation is to make itself more inclusive — “if someone wants to dance and wants to make the commitment, we want them here,” Ms. Huston said — and are focused on eliminating the “elitist” reputation.
“We want everybody to be able to dance,” Ms. Lopez said. “The dancing benefits all different walks of life — race, financial brackets, body types.
“If you want to come to class, do the work, are serious about your training, we want to have you.”
One way the SBFB is combatting cost is its “Friends of Clara” outreach program, focused on aiding children with limited resources.
Working with community service agencies such as Transition House, CASA, CALM and the Boys & Girls Club, SBFB is able to provide complimentary tickets to young students to the Nutcracker, sparking a higher interest in classical dancing.
In years past, more than 600 children have been able to attend the Nutcracker due to donations from local businesses.
“It’s awesome to watch a child who has never seen a live production, to have them sit next to people that maybe don’t have the same obstacles,” Ms. Huston said. “They’ll see the orchestra down in the pit and not realize that they are going to be playing all of the music for the production. And when the orchestra starts, you see them lift out of their chairs, eyes really wide and in awe of what is going on. Those are experiences we are dedicated to making sure we provide.”
Attracting the best
The SBFB’s production doesn’t just impress the area’s youth, but also has established a deep connection to the greater ballet community, attracting professional ballerinas and dancers from San Francisco, Boston and New York City to participate in the Nutcracker over the past 45 years.
This year is no different, with the Sugar Plum Fairy and Sugar Plum Cavalier being played by world-renowned dancers Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco, principals at the San Francisco Ballet.
According to Ms. Reiter, the experience of performing with professionals is invaluable experience for SBFB’s dancers.
“They see them come in on the Friday before the shows, get on stage to go through a rehearsal and show them what it takes to be a professional,” Ms. Reiter said. “And, it shows them what to aspire to.”
The work it takes to not only get on stage for the Nutcracker, but also succeed in class all year long isn’t lost on Ember, who welcomes the challenge.
“I absolutely love ballet, but it takes a lot of work to get better,” Ember said. “We have to put in a lot of hours, and really focus on all of the details that will help us grow.”
Ms. Reiter knows it is all about keeping the fire burning inside, something that the SBFB has done for her for more than four decades.
“We don’t put limitations on anyone here, they can aspire to be anyone they want, in the Nutcracker or as a dancer,” Ms. Reiter said.
“We just want to provide the opportunity.”
IF YOU GO
When: Dec. 14 (2:30 p.m.; 7 p.m.) & Dec. 15 (2:30 p.m.)
Where: Arlington Theatre
Tickets: $25-$50; the SBFB’s Friends of Clara program offers complimentary tickets with limited resources, call 805-899-2901.
Information: SantaBarbaraFestivalBallet.com or 805-963-4408