Athena Alonzo stepped onto the stage and met the dancers who had just completed a performance of "The Nutcracker" on Saturday.
"You can get their autographs -- all of them," the 10-year-old from Merced said after the Central West Ballet matinee.
Athena was among 80 audience members who paid an extra $10 for the post-performance visit at the Gallo Center for the Arts. They had their pictures taken with the dancers and got them to sign autograph books made of construction paper bound with ribbon.
"Mostly, I liked the Sugar-Plum Fairy," said Athena, who came with best friend Rachel Reding, 11, of Turlock.
"I liked everything about it," Rachel said. "It's exciting to see it."
Post-performance parties are common among the many ballet companies that put on "The Nutcracker" around Christmas, said Leslie Ann Larson, ballet mistress for Central West.
"It's fun for the performers to see the children because it's such a children's ballet, and it's fun for the children to see the performers up close," she said.
It's extra special this year because of the opening of the Gallo Center. The sold-out house of 1,200-plus emptied at the end of Saturday's performance, and the spectators attending the stage gathering filed back in.
The participants, mostly girls, were dressed in their going-to-the-ballet best. The dancers remained in the costumes they wore at the final curtain.
There sat Clara, the character taken on a dreamy adventure with a nutcracker doll she receives on Christmas Eve. Nearby was the prince that the nutcracker turns into. There, too, was the Sugar-Plum Fairy, who presents dances with the flavor of Spain and Arabia and other lands.
"I liked the little, tiny mice," said Arianna Harper, 5, of Modesto, referring to dancers who did battle with the nutcracker early on.
"The Nutcracker" is based on an 1816 story by German writer E.T.A. Hoffman. The ballet, with music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, debuted in Russia in 1892. Since then, it has been performed countless times around the world.
"It's just the universal appeal to the kids -- Christmas and the sweets and treats," said Amy Harper, who brought daughters Arianna and Meridith, 8, to the stage party.
"I liked the music," Meridith said as she toed a piece of tape marking a dancer's position on the floor. "I liked the Chinese tea dance."
Jeanne Perry of Modesto brought two of her grandchildren -- Kate, 5, and Robert, 4. She said she has seen "The Nutcracker" at least 30 times, including Central West and the San Francisco Ballet last year.
She also recalled a version of the score that included lyrics.
"When I was a young girl, (bandleader) Fred Waring did the complete 'Nutcracker' with words," she said. "I had my own record player in my room and would play it."
It's clear that with this 115-year-old ballet, traditions keep evolving.
"Us girls go to 'The Nut- cracker' and the boys go shopping," Amy Harper said of her family, "and then we all go home and have pizza for dinner."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.