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The Peanutcracker: The Story behind the Story

Published December 16, 2022

The Peanutcracker: The Story behind the Story

by Rosine Bena

It all began in 1992 when I retired from the professional ballet stage after a 28-year performing career and took over directorship of Peninsula Ballet Theatre School in San Mateo, California. I had long wanted to do something special for young children around The Nutcracker ballet. In many cases, The Nutcracker is a child’s first introduction to the art of ballet, and for very young children, it is often long for their attention span and the story is sometimes difficult for them to follow.

French Bon Bon Princesses from Peanutcracker

I decided to write a short 45-minute version of the ballet especially for young audiences and to narrate it. The main challenge was, of course, how to actually produce it myself with little to no budget. Fortunately, the Redwood City Cultural Commission was starting a Holiday Festival at that time and wanted a performance that families could attend after the holiday parade. They offered us a venue and to help with publicity. 

There were many creative challenges: the choreography, the cast, the sets, the costumes and the music!

Snow King and Queen from Peanutcracker

I spent days working on the music. It was a time when reel-to-reel musical tapes were popular. I had worked with Dick Wahlberg of Wahlberg Recording Studio in the past and found him to be a musical genius. Afflicted with Tunnel vision, Dick turned his handicap into an asset, as his ear for cutting music was utterly amazing. Dick and I spent hours and hours working to carefully shorten the music while still maintaining the integrity. I finally left Wahlberg studio with four small cassette tapes of the music.

For the cast, I decided to use the advanced students of the school as the leads and the younger students in the children’s roles. Several students’ mothers were excellent seamstresses and offered to help with the costumes, and one of my dancer friends had worked with my late father (who had been a fabulous professional set designer) and was able to construct a Christmas tree that could be kept in a large box to be easily transported and cranked up from the back to create the illusion of growing. My set idea was to create one backdrop which could serve for every scene. However a blank canvas the size of a set cost several thousand dollars and set designers were difficult to find and cost a lot. 

As luck would have it, I saw an artist in a coffee shop sketching on a pad. I glanced at his work and saw that it was very beautiful. After introducing myself, I learned his name was Ziggy and talked him into designing and painting a set for $300. Ziggy had a friend who owned a bakery and had rolls of baking paper which he agreed to donate. We taped the rolls together and Ziggy used some of my Dad’s paints to create an amazingly beautiful backdrop on baking paper. 

Flower Princess from Peanutcracker (Left), Nutcracker Prince and Clara from Peanutcracker (Right)

With a student cast and many volunteers, we managed to present the first production of what we then called The Mini Nutcracker. To my surprise this little production had an incredible response from audiences. People began calling and writing in, requesting more and more performances. The Mini Nutcracker was a great hit! It was for that reason that I decided to continue presenting it annually with the professional Bay Area company, Perspectives Dance Theatre, from 1995 to 2000 and then when I founded our professional company, Sierra Nevada Ballet. 

SNB performed the ballet for the first time in 2001 in Carson City outside in front of the Nevada State Legislature Building. It was at that time, during a conversation with Joe McCarthy who was then director of the Brewery Arts Center, that I decided to change the name and call the ballet The Peanutcracker-The Story In A Nutshell. While much of the original ballet has been upgraded for a professional level production, the beautiful backdrop is still based on the original design by Ziggy, recreated on canvas. 

What started out as a little idea inspired by young audience members turned into far more than I had ever dreamed. Besides being an audience favorite, The Peanutcracker was filmed for TV and presented on PBS in Nevada and California during the holidays for ten years; has been recognized nationally by the Wall Street Journal; was awarded direct funding from the National Endowment for the Arts three different years, and garnered SNB a site visit from the Director of the National Endowment for the Arts. 

Pages of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Peanutcracker

Through the years the production has grown in quality; now features more SNB professional dancers joined by ballet students from the northern Nevada community; is presented annually for over 4,000 school children, and has had annual open to the public performances in Carson City since 2001. This year marks the first time SNB will perform an open to the public performance in Reno by audience request. This open to the public performance is December 18 at 2pm at the Pioneer Center for the Performing Arts in Reno. This production designed for children is celebrating its 30th anniversary! 

For tickets to SNB’s The Peanutcracker - The Story In A Nutshell visit or call the Pioneer Box Office at 775-434-1050.     

PBS Reno will air SNB’s 2011 televised production of The Peanutcracker at 9pm on Dec. 20 and 9am on Dec. 25.


Rosine Bena is the Artistic Director of Sierra Nevada Ballet which performs Peanutcracker — The Story In A Nutshell at the Pioneer Center on December 12 and 18, 2022. For information on SNB or the SNB Academy call 775-360-8663 or visit

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