Magic abounds in Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s ‘Nutcracker’

dttnutcrackerBlack Friday may be a national day of shopping for most people, but in Middle Tennessee it’s also a time to celebrate ballet. That’s because Dance Theatre of Tennessee hits the road after Thanksgiving, taking its annual production of The Nutcracker on a regional tour. The group’s staging at Nashville’s Ensworth High School on Friday night delivered all of the expected Christmas magic.

This year’s “Touring Nutcracker” has a Christmas tree that sprouts like a bean stalk, right on cue. It also has waltzing flowers, a veritable blizzard of swirling snowflakes and, of course, that ravenous Rat King, whose hordes of mice (played by adorable children) battle heroic (and equally loveable) toy soldiers. Most importantly, Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s current production of The Nutcracker features some of the most tasteful and graceful ballerinas appearing anywhere this side of the Land of Sweets.

Tchaikovsky and his legendary choreographer, Marius Petipa, told stories through a combination of Dance, music and mime. Dance Theatre of Tennessee adds one other element of storytelling – narration. Artistic director Christopher Mohnani founded this company in order to bring ballet to the people, especially to people who may never have seen classical dance up close and personal before. In Mohnani’s opinion, narration makes the art form more accessible to first-time balletgoers. It can certainly help with The Nutcracker, which always attracts its fair share of families with young children.

The current national trend in staging Nutcrackers is to localize them, placing them in various turn-of-the-20th-century American cities (Nashville Ballet has created its own delightful Nashville Nutcracker). That’s not really a viable option for Dance Theatre of Tennessee, which needs to make its Touring Nutcracker relevant to audiences in a half-dozen cities. So Mohnani has opted to produce a simple, straightforward and traditional ballet.

The colorful costumes – by Paula Drake of Tutus Divine along with Joy Matubis and Jamie Scott – function properly as all-purpose Victorian-era garb. Gregg Colson and Mike Thornton’s set design is likewise cozy and believable – a hearth and grandfather clock for the Act I party scene and candy-cane pillars for Act II’s Land of the Sweets (balletgoers should pay close attention to the mirror above the hearth, since it has magical properties).

nutcracker2Any Nutcracker that’s worth its weight in pixie dust should be for and about children, and on Friday Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s youth cast delivered sweetly entertaining performances. Aubrey Kazimi (who alternates this weekend with Olivia Cox) danced the role of Clara with elegance and wide-eyed enthusiasm. Her sweet innocence paired nicely with Christopher Durham’s Drosselmeyer, who’s portrayed in this production as a nurturing avuncular figure.  Nick Scheldt, for his part, was appropriately mischievous in the role of Clara’s little brother Fritz.

The large ensemble youth cast of party boys and girls, mice, soldierettes, Columbine dolls, angels, flower attendants and bonbons, also gave worthy performances.

Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s company dancers performed with distinction. Jennifer Drake danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy with her usual polished perfection – her classical elegance and Patrician bearing make her believable in any lead ballet role. Brian Williamson was dashing and athletic as the Cavalier. Amanda Whites seemed positively weightless in her graceful rendition of Dew Drop. Lena Parker and Dillon Davis were beautifully expressive as the Snow Queen and Snow King. All of the national dancers – Spanish, Chinese, Arabian and Russian – danced with energy and enthusiasm.

There’s enough magic in Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s Nutcracker to satisfy children and adults alike, so dance fans would do well to catch one of the company’s upcoming performances.

If you go

Dance Theatre of Tennessee presents its Nutcracker through Dec. 20 at various venues around Middle Tennessee. Tickets are $20 adults and $15 children. For more information, go to www.dancetheatretn.org. Upcoming performances include:

Saturday, Nov. 24, 2 and 7 p.m. at Ensworth High School (Devon Farm) Theater, 7401 Hwy 100, Nashville.

Saturday, Dec. 1, 7 p.m. at Creek Wood High auditorium, 3499 Hwy 47, in Charlotte (Dickson County), TN.

Saturday, Dec. 8, 7 p.m. at Clement Auditorium, Austin Peay University, 601 College St., Clarksville.

Saturday, Dec. 15, 7 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 16, 2 p.m. at Tucker Theatre, Middle Tennessee State University.

Thursday, Dec. 20, 7 p.m., Smithville Performing Arts Center, 712 S. Congress Blvd., Smithville, TN.

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About John Pitcher

John Pitcher is the chief classical music, jazz and dance critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He has been a classical music critic for the Washington Post, the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, National Public Radio’s Performance Today (NPR), ArtNowNashville.com and the Nashville Scene. His writings about music and the arts have also appeared in Symphony Magazine, American Record Guide and Stagebill Magazine, among other publications. Pitcher earned his master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied arts writing with Judith Crist and Phyllis Garland. His work has received the New York State Associated Press award for outstanding classical music criticism.