KING CITY — A holiday tradition that has carried on for the past six decades in King City, “The Nutcracker Ballet” will return to the stage this weekend for its 60th anniversary production with a few surprises in store for audiences.
The Christmas classic, produced by Monterey County Dance Foundation and Monterey County Dance Theatre, has featured thousands of young dancers from South Monterey County since it was first introduced by Anita “Pauline” Houx Hall in 1959. Hall, who taught dance in the area for more than 40 years before she died in 2011, started the ballet to enrich the lives of her students in Salinas Valley.
Her daughter, Janette Harkness, has since continued the iconic event, which is considered one of the oldest “Nutcracker” productions in the United States. Harkness — recently named the 2019 Friend of the Community along with the dance school by King City Chamber of Commerce — is the ballet’s choreographer and artistic director of Monterey County Dance Theatre.
“I danced as a mouse in the first production,” said Harkness, who remembers her mother initially teaching dance out of their kitchen to neighborhood children. “I’ve probably danced in more ‘Nutcrackers’ than a lot of people have.”
The student ensembles eventually outgrew the family house and moved on to dance at the Hotel El Camino Real ballroom, followed by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church parish hall, the International Order of Odd Fellows Hall — now the dance studio’s current home — and finally the Robert Stanton Theater in King City.
“‘The Nutcracker’ began very simply with a mother who wanted to provide something for her kids that she felt they would be able to do, and when she asked her peers, they told her, ‘No, Pauline, you don’t want to do that. The children can’t do it, especially children down in King City because we’re so isolated and they don’t have access to the orchestra’ — all these negatives kept coming up,” Harkness recalled. “But she was persistent, and 60 years later, she was quite right.”
The two-act ballet — based on the fairy tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” written by E. T. A. Hoffmann in 1816 — tells the story of a young girl who dreams of a nutcracker doll and a fierce battle against a mouse king.
Chloe Isabella Arriaga, an eighth grader at Main Street Middle School and daughter of Fabian and Rosanna Arriaga of Soledad, will dance as the heroine, Clara, in this year’s production.
“The Nutcracker Ballet” features a total of 125 dancers from King City’s Monterey County Dance Theatre, along with character actors from The Stage Hands. Most of the students live in South Monterey County, from Gonzales in the north to Bradley in the south.
The ensemble, ranging in age from 5 to adult, has been rehearsing the show since August.
“We’re really proud of the kids,” Harkness said. “They’re going to do an outstanding 60th anniversary production.”
Audiences can expect to see a few surprises for the milestone anniversary, including guest appearances from past “Nutcracker” dancers and cast members in the opening scene. Harkness has also secured the services of world-renowned Flying by Foy from Las Vegas to perform aerial choreography, coined “aereography,” with some of this year’s cast members.
“We are lucky to have Flying by Foy coming in to assist us with flying in our production of ‘Nutcracker,’” Harkness said. “This is very exciting for the 60th anniversary because Flying by Foy is world renowned, and they invented ‘flying people.’ The art of flying is originated with Peter Foy, the founder of the company.”
The 60th anniversary of “The Nutcracker Ballet” opens this Friday, Dec. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Robert Stanton Theater on the King City High School campus. The show continues Saturday, Dec. 14, and Sunday, Dec. 15, with matinees at 2:30 p.m.
In celebration of the ballet’s diamond anniversary, the Monterey County Dance Foundation is also hosting a Gala Reception at 5 p.m., after Saturday’s production, inside the Orradre Building at the Salinas Valley Fairgrounds in King City. The gala includes dinner, entertainment, music and more.
Tickets for the gala and the three performances can be bought at the Monterey County Dance Theatre studio, 332 Bassett St., in King City, or call 831-261-2981. Tickets will also be available at the door.
“From kitchen to 60 years later, we’re celebrating Pauline’s dream that I think is a legacy for South County,” Harkness said.