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Jeff Wing: Santa Barbara Festival Ballet, the History in a Nut(cracker)shell

Nearly 50 years ago, Bob and Carol Hanlin turned their passion for dance into a school of their own that's still going strong

In 1962, Bob and Carol Hanlin, both recently of the iconic American Ballet Theatre, wrapped up their teaching duties, packed their belongings and left San Mateo with a dream and a plan. In separate tenures with the legendary ABT (whose own starry provenance is a hop and a jeté away from the Bolshoi), they had leaped, gamboled and flown the balletic high wire in a dance company considered one of the foundational agents of modern classical dance in the United States.

Having retired as professional dancers, they had each come separately to teach at Madame Olga Ziceva’s academy in Northern California. There, in a turn right out of Prokofiev, the Hanlins met and began the long-running pas de deux that continues to this day.

In the spirit of their new partnership, the Hanlins foresaw a next chapter for themselves. They would pour their combined artistic energies and passions into a dance school of their own. They had the chops, the moxie and the dance cards. They had, after all, danced in the company of George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille, et al — the very architects of American classical and modern dance. Now was the Hanlins’ time to give back, to proselytize, to share what they had learned at (and from) the feet of the masters. And in a school that was wholly their own.

But where? Where to locate this new citadel of artistic passion and outreach? What teeming metropolis would play both host and beneficiary to this high-flying, haute couture enterprise? Paris? London? Moscow? New York City? Goleta?

Um, did someone say Goleta?

Yeah, The Good Land. By 1964, as The Beatles were raising an unlikely grin on Ed Sullivan’s stoic mug and young ladies were screaming themselves hoarse, the Hanlins had moved to little Goleta and effectively brought the American Ballet Theatre playbook with them. This leafy seaside hamlet with her rolling open spaces, Thomas the Tank Engine train depot and Leave It to Beaver gee-whizness became heir to an unlikely legacy — a suburban ballet school and performance company that would morph into today’s Santa Barbara Ballet Center/Santa Barbara Festival Ballet, a blue-ribbon dance conservatory and pre-professional performance company that in its run has turned enthusiastic girls and boys into dedicated artists and sent them out, like acolytes, to busy dance companies across the United States and Canada.

The Little Dance School That Could can boast a Tony Award winner among its alums, and just this past summer a Festival Ballet dancer walked away with the coveted Cecchetti Contemporary Award in Manchester, England; one of a mere 44 international competitors who even made the cut to appear.The SBFB story has quite the libretto.

“I remember the Hanlins teaching us to be very, very careful of our knees, and I stress that with our students now,” said Diana Replogle-Purinton, an early adopter of the Hanlins’ new school, signing on in 1966.

After leaving ABT, Bob Hanlin suffered a performance-curtailing knee injury on the film set of 20th Century Fox’s experimental hoedown Oklahoma!. He would use this as an object lesson for his young charges. Replogle-Purinton, Goleta born and bred, was one of those first starry-eyed and determined students, taking classes and working the front reception desk of what was then the Goleta School of Ballet (no relation to the current Goleta School of Ballet), located at that time in a spacious but unassuming walk-up on Magnolia near Hollister Avenue in Old Town Goleta. She recalls Bob Hanlin as a fastidious taskmaster who was deadly serious about imbuing his young charges with the gravity of the artist’s mission. When he wasn’t wafting malted milk balls at them.

“Our company classes were in the morning and we would rehearse afterward,” Replogle-Purinton recalled. “There was a couch in the studio lobby, and one summer day we were eating lunch between rehearsals. Mr. Hanlin loved chocolate malt balls, and to our surprise he began lobbing malt balls to us on the couch. It was really out of character.”

Dancer Chelsea Cambron goes airborne.
Dancer Chelsea Cambron goes airborne. (Elaine Mayson photo)

Before long, the Hanlins’ classical start-up was a known quantity in the region’s dance and arts community. Word got out that something very special had taken root, and the Goleta School of Ballet quickly acquired a regional reputation as the go-to for serious pursuers of dance, and as a provider of performers for local productions. Soon the Santa Barbara Symphony came calling. Under then-conductor Ronald Ondrejka (1967-79), the symphony began requesting the artistry of the Hanlins’ dancers for Tiny Tots concerts, productions of Peter and the Wolf, for in-school demonstrations with parts of the symphony, and for demonstration excerpts of Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous and vaguely hallucinogenic ballet The Nutcracker. The partnership and rapport between the Santa Barbara Symphony and the soon-to-be-renamed Santa Barbara Festival Ballet was thus established very early on.

In 1973, conductor Ondrejka asked the Hanlins to partner with the symphony in an ambitious mounting of a full-scale production of The Nutcracker. The Hanlins reluctantly demurred. They did not feel at that moment they had a full enough complement of experienced dancers to fill The Nutcracker’s demanding ranks. They did, though, recognize this as a ground-floor opportunity and arranged to partner with Marin’s Peninsula Ballet Theater to split the duties for this inaugural symphonic production of the holiday classic. The next year, 1974, the Hanlins managed to fully partner with the symphony in a sparkling, large-scale production of The Nutcracker that thrilled audience and participants alike. A star was born — The Nutcracker at the Arlington Theatre.

Meanwhile, a plucky dancer/choreographer, UCSB student and part-time Hanlin protégé named Denise Rinaldi had been busily laying her own groundwork as a certified teacher of classical dance, commuting to Los Angeles and dedicating herself to training in the Cecchetti method of classical dance instruction under the late Sheila Darby, herself a prime mover of Cecchetti in the United States. Rinaldi would later become a Fellow in Cecchetti USA and a certified examiner of the method’s student practitioners. Most importantly, she would make Cecchetti the animating creative center of the school.

The Cecchetti method, developed in the 1920s by Maestro Enrico Cecchetti and employed today in dance companies the world over, makes a happy science of the art. Through a series of carefully guided exercises, the Cecchetti method infuses the dancer with an acute physical self-awareness, producing a trademark purity of style and line that works in careful accordance with the body’s architecture. By design, the Cecchetti method also addresses the ongoing physical demands of performance, and so is essential to preparing for the rigors of the profession. The discipline has a global reputation and impassioned adherents in dance companies around the world.

By 1990, the Hanlins had securely established the school’s standing. They felt it was their time to move on, and they cast about for someone to whom to hand the torch. Rinaldi and Michele Andersen stepped up with bells on. They saw an opportunity to build on what the Hanlins had begun and took up the gauntlet. The Goleta School of Ballet became the Santa Barbara Ballet Center and soon relocated to downtown Santa Barbara, where the performing arm of the center became a distinct entity called the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet.

The yearly Nutcracker at the Arlington remained a tradition on the second weekend of December every year, and the locals poured into the starlit Arlington Theatre to swoon to the live symphonic reading of Tchaikovsky’s rhapsodic melodies, and to see such dance and storytelling as befits that otherworldly story and music. The Santa Barbara Festival Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker remains the only Nutcracker on the Central Coast to feature a live symphony orchestra.

In 2006, Andersen and Rinaldi had an amicable parting of the ways. Rinaldi became sole proprietor of the Santa Barbara Ballet Center. The Santa Barbara Festival Ballet continued to grow and evolve. All was right with the world. Then in 2008, the plié hit the fan.

“It was absolutely an honest mistake,” Cindy Elster assured emphatically in her soft-spoken manner.

She was referring to 2008’s “Nutcracker Incident,” a strange battle of wills that sprang up between two respected dance entities in town. That year as every year for the past 34, the Festival Ballet had scheduled to perform at the Arlington with the symphony the second weekend of December. An unintended scheduling snafu suddenly had both the Festival Ballet and the State Street Ballet, Santa Barbara’s sterling professional dance company, booked to perform The Nutcracker with symphony the same night in December. To complicate the situation, that was the year the lavishly redesigned Granada Theatre (which at its nadir had devolved into a sagging movie triplex) opened its gilded doors as a world-class performance space and was welcomed by the Santa Barbara community with open arms, thanks to the staggering generosity of a small army of donors led by local tastemaker and arts patron Michael Towbes.

Rodney Gustafson and his State Street Ballet had quickly established residency in the beautiful new hall, as had the Santa Barbara Symphony. Gustafson, perhaps understandably, assumed the grand reopening of the Granada would organically facilitate the joining of his company and the symphony in a Nutcracker production at the reborn venue that year. The dates, however, overlapped, and the orchestra was spoken for. In the event, the Santa Barbara Festival ballet performed that year with the Santa Barbara Symphony. But at a cost.

The season surrounding the competing Nutcrackers was rife with the sort of innuendo, rumor-mongering, letters to editors and finger pointing that can fairly polarized a hometown theatergoing public. It was a balletic rumble of sorts. Jerome Robbins would have been proud. The following year, which happened to be the much-announced 35th anniversary of the Festival Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Arlington, the scheduling faux pas occurred again, to the chagrin of many.

Since then, the waters have calmed, holiday performance schedules once again complement each other, and there is a measure of peace and mutual understanding in this season whose keynote, after all, is peace. The bottom line? Santa Barbara has more talent and showmanship than it can easily accommodate. It’s a high-class problem. Around the holidays there is a surfeit of ringing Tchaikovsky on upper State Street, and enough Sugar Plum Fairies to keep the dentists busy into the indefinite future.

The icing on the Festival Ballet cake might just be the Friends of Clara Program, brainchild of Elster and her team that, thanks to the support of generous largehearted donors every year, rolls out the red carpet to members of the community who might not otherwise have the means to see the full-blown holiday spectacle of The Nutcracker ballet performed at the Arlington.

“Across our community we can reach out to the children and their families with that classic ballet and the lovely music. That’s what takes my breath away,” Elster said with an audible catch in her voice, “that someone can walk into that theater and know that they are a part of that audience, a part of this community of theatergoers and celebrants, that they belong, we all belong together, regardless of circumstance.”

In the several years since its inception, the Friends of Clara Program has been a resounding, enfolding success — an increasingly inclusive velvet rope.

In 2011, the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet continues to grow and evolve. Over the years the dance companies that have benefited from Festival Ballet’s matriculating students include the Alberta Ballet, Parsons Dance, Houston Ballet and Sarasota Ballet, to name but a few.

The Broadway opening of Mel Brooks’ runaway hit The Producers saw Santa Barbara Festival Ballet alum/stage and screen actress Cady Huffman take the stage as leading lady Ulla, more than holding her own between scenery-chewing co-stars Matthew Broderick and Nathan Lane, in a performance that earned Huffman a Tony Award. And Chelsea Cambron’s wave-making triumph in Manchester this past summer is still the talk of the tutu-and-tights circuit here, and throughout the global Cecchetti network.

The Hanlins’ original dream, approaching its 50th year, continues to bear fruit. Young aspiring dancers blossom under the stage lights in a full-blown, full-scale production of The Nutcracker every holiday season, dancing giddily alongside visiting seasoned professionals, before an appreciative hometown audience and to the gossamer accompaniment of a live symphony orchestra. It is The Nutcracker performance opportunity that draws many new students to the school, and they stay for everything else the school has to offer — a growing and dynamic year-long performance schedule, the 24-karat Cecchetti training that anchors the curriculum and a sort of second family whose esprit de corps comes from a shared passion for art.

And what drives company director Rinaldi? What got her started on her life’s passion those years ago?

“I fell in love with ballet seeing Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev on television,” she said. “Trips to the library were all about ballet books. As soon as I could earn money of my own I spent it on lessons and then worked more and more and was able to perform quite a lot through local companies and in college. I love the music and ... just moving!”

This is one little dancer who made it happen. Girls and boys, take note. This could be you.

Note: The Nutcracker will be performed at the Arlington Theatre at 2:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 10 and at 2:30 p.m. Dec. 11. For tickets, call the Arlington box office at 805.963.4408.

— Jeff Wing is a Noozhawk contributor covering the arts.

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