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Dance Review: Dance Theatre of Tennessee presents an enchanting ‘Nutcracker’

dttnutcrackerIt’s Nutcracker season in Middle Tennessee. Every year around Thanksgiving, Dance Theatre of Tennessee hits the road, taking its itinerant staging of The Nutcracker to various cities and counties across the region. The company is in Davidson County this weekend, and on Friday night it presented a Nutcracker at Ensworth High School that was chockfull of holiday enchantment.

Indeed, Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s current production packs enough magic to appeal to even the most discriminating six-year olds. Time occasionally stands still in this Nutcracker, but the same can’t be said for the Christmas tree, which sprouts like kudzu. The production also boasts waltzing flowers, swirling snowflakes and a ravenous Rat King who leads his pack malevolent mice (played by adorable tots) into battle against courageous toy soldiers (played by equally lovable children). And don’t forget the fairies – of the Sugar Plum and Dew Drop varieties – who flutter about the stage with ineffable grace and taste.

dtt-wfTraditionally, classical ballet tells its stories through a combination of music, dance and mime. Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s production of The Nutcracker is unique among versions of this ballet that I’ve seen in that it also includes some spoken narration. Artistic director Christopher Mohnani founded the company to bring ballet to the people, and he believes narration can help make classical dance accessible to newbie balletgoers. It certainly held the attention of all the children who attended Friday night’s performance.

Nutcracker productions are often very posh, lavish affairs. That’s not the case with this Nutcracker. For a peripatetic company like Dance Theatre of Tennessee, the most important attribute of a set is its transportability. Therefore, Gregg Colson and Mike Thornton’s set design is above all functional. The Act 1 party scene set consists of a settee, hearth, grandfather clock and fabric Christmas tree (balletgoers should pay close attention to the mirror above the hearth and the tree, since both are magical). Act 2’s Land of the Sweets has a few candy cane pillars. Paula Drake, Joy Matubis and Jamie Scott’s costumes are just as simple, colorful and believable.

The real magic in Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s Nutcracker is the dancing, and on Friday the company’s youth cast, soloists and corps de ballet all gave terrific performances. Hannah McCarthy (who alternates this weekend with Sarah Price) was a winsome and ebullient Clara. When she received her Nutcracker doll from Herr Drosselmeyer, her radiant enthusiasm seemingly sparked the magic that dominated the rest of the evening. Mohnani, as the aforementioned Drosselmeyer, struck just the right balance between avuncular kindliness and mysteriousness.

Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s large youth cast also gave memorable performances as partygoers, mice, soldiers, attendants and bonbons. J.J. Dubin was a delightfully mischievous Fritz.

dtt-spThe leads all gave distinguished performances. Jennifer Drake danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy with style, flair and aristocratic elegance. Brian Williamson was an able partner, dancing the Cavalier with graceful athleticism.  Kelsey Garnett was an effervescent Dew Drop, and Heather Gorres was an utterly sumptuous Snow Queen. Hillary Busick, for her part, dished out a heaping helping of Christmas ham in the comic role of the Maid. All of the national dancers – Spanish, Chinese, Arabian and Russian – performed with brio.

Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s Nutcracker repeats this afternoon and evening at Ensworth, and it will appear at various other venues across the region in December. Attending one of the repeat performances will surely be among the best Christmas presents you’ll get this season.

Here’s the schedule for Dance Theatre of Tennessee’s Nutcracker:

Nashville

November 30, Saturday, 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.

Ensworth HS Auditorium, 7401 Hwy 100, Nashville, TN 37221

Clarksville

December 7, Saturday, 2:00 p.m., December 7, Saturday, 7:00 p.m.

Clement Auditorium – Austin Peay University, 601 College Street, Clarksville, TN 37044

Murfreesboro

December 14, Saturday, 7:00 p.m., December 15, Sunday, 2:00 p.m.

Tucker Theater – MTSU Campus, Murfreesboro TN 37130

Smithville

December 21, Saturday, 2:00 p.m.

Smithville Performing Arts Center, 712 S. Congress Blvd., Smithville, TN 37166

 IF YOU GO

Dance Theatre of Tennessee presents the Nutcracker at various venues during the holiday season. Tickets are $25 adults and $20 children and are available by clicking here. For more information, call (615) 391-5500.

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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.