The Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition of 1897 was a wondrous event. Located on 132 acres of land on the western fringe of Nashville, this amazing fair took visitors on a global tour, providing them with glimpses of exotic Cuban and Chinese villages, an Egyptian pyramid and the Athenian Parthenon. The exposition attracted nearly two million people over the course of its six months, and it created memories that lasted a lifetime.
These days, the Centennial Exposition can claim at least two lasting legacies: The first is Centennial Park and its replica of the Parthenon; the second is Nashville’s Nutcracker, Nashville Ballet’s visually splendiferous and beautifully danced production that opened Sunday afternoon at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center.
Tchaikovsky’s 1892 holiday classic has long been the bread and butter of most ballet companies. In recent years, many troupes have followed the trend of localizing their productions, setting them in various late-19th-century American cities. There have been New York and San Francisco “Nutcrackers.” First mounted in 2008, Nashville’s Nutcracker has been one of the trend’s most effective spinoffs.
That’s because artistic director Paul Vasterling’s idea of using the Centennial Exposition as the catalyst of Clara’s dream seems so perfect. While strolling through the fair at the beginning of the ballet, Clara and Drosselmeyer see a snake charmer, a Chinese puppeteer and a Russian woman with a matryoshka doll. These images settle into Clara’s subconscious, returning as Act 2’s various national dancers.
Victorian-era Nashville likewise served as a convincing setting for the Nutcracker’s Act 1 party scene. Set designer Shigeru Yaji’s sumptuous set, complete with Gone With the Wind-style winding staircase, recreates the splendor of the old Belle Meade Mansion. The children play with an Andrew Jackson toy soldier, who, during the dream scene, battles a redcoat rat general and his legion of (utterly adorable) Scottish mice. An old Civil War soldier serves as Clara’s eccentric and amusing grandfather. Costume designer Campbell Baird captures the spirit of the age with his colorful, stylish handiwork.
Ultimately, Nashville’s Nutcracker is about great dancing, and on Sunday afternoon the company was in fine form. The troupe’s veteran ballerinas – Mollie Sansone, Sadie Bo Harris and Kayla Rowser – are rotating the lead roles this month. On Sunday, Sansone got first shot to shine as the Sugar Plum Fairy. For much of Act 2, she glistened iridescently. Lithe and elegant, Sansone danced the Act 2 “Pas de Deux” with flowing lines and aristocratic poise. Christopher Stuart, as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s cavalier, danced athletically without being overly showy.
Sadie Bo Harris was such a beautiful Snow Queen that one almost hates to see her switch roles. Her dancing was expressive and seemingly weightless – like a veritable snowflake in the wind. Kyla Rowser, as the Dew Drop Fairy, was a vision of sensuous, fluttering grace. Kevin Terry cut a dashing figure as the Nutcracker Prince, and John Upleger was a refined and attentive Snow King.
The various national dancers – Spanish, Chinese, Arabian (cast as Snake Lady and Charmer in this production), Russian and Swiss – were appropriately characterful. Kasey Broekema was sweetly charming as Clara. Zakk Fowler was a marvelously mischievous Fritz. Eric Harris, for his part, portrayed Drosselmeyer as mysterious while avoiding the pitfall of making him seem creepy. The ballet’s large youth cast of party children, mice, soldiers, lambs and bonbons were positively delightful.
One of the best things about Nashville Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is that it is performed live with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the pit. Conductor Christopher Norton, a professor of music at Belmont University, led the NSO with color and sweep, making Tchaikovsky’s score sound at times like a dramatic tone poem. Moreover, his rhythms were unfailingly danceable.
Nashville Ballet’s “Nutcracker” offers enough music and magic to appeal to even the most discriminating 6 year olds. So make haste and waltz over to TPAC for one of the repeat shows.
If you go
Nashville Ballet presents Nashville’s Nutcracker through Dec. 23 at the Tennessee Performing Art Center’s Andrew Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St. Tickets are $22.25 to $89. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 782-4040 or go to www.nashvilleballet.com. Performance times are as follows:
Friday, December 14 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, December 15 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Sunday, December 16 at 2 p.m.; Thursday, December 20 at 7 p.m.; Friday, December 21 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, December 22 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Sunday, December 23 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.