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Dance Review: ‘Nashville’s Nutcracker’ works its magic in a setting that’s close to home

newnutmainTchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is without question the world’s most popular ballet. It has a ubiquitous presence in America, where some 800 productions occur seasonally in more than 120 cities. For children of all ages, The Nutcracker has become an annual rite of passage.

Little girls in their bright holiday dresses and boys in their smart Christmas sweaters were out in force on Saturday afternoon, when Nashville Ballet launched its sixth annual production of Nashville’s Nutcracker. Performances continue through Dec. 22 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Andrew Jackson Hall.

Like many ballet directors around the country, Nashville Ballet’s Paul Vasterling decided to give his version of The Nutcracker a local twist. Therefore, he set his Nutcracker in turn-of-the-20th-century Nashville, with the action happening during the Tennessee Centennial and International Exposition of 1897.

newnutThe ballet opens with Clara – in the company of the magician Drosselmeyer – walking through the exposition in wide-eyed wonder. She sees a snake charmer, a Chinese puppeteer and a Russian woman with a matryoshka doll. These characters return in fantastical form as the national dancers in act two’s Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

It may have been my imagination, but Saturday’s Nutcracker seemed to be even more visually splendid than in past years. Scenic designer Shigeru Yaji’s sumptuous act one set, modeled after the old Belle Meade Mansion, included a Gone With The Wind-style winding staircase. His design for act two’s the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy  looked like a Salvador Dali rendering of Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

snowqueesCostume designer Campbell Baird captured the spirit of the age with colorful Victorian-era costumes and a gorgeous Imperial Russian-style outfit for the Sugar Plum Fairy. The attention to every detail was extraordinary. Indeed, the presentation of the national dances in act two was the most impressive that I’ve seen in any production. The Chinese dragon was spectacular, and I loved the young Russian dancers, who emerged in perfectly decreasing heights from a life-size matryoshka doll.

Of course, any production of The Nutcracker that’s worth its weight in snowflakes and flower petals must have great dancing, and on Saturday afternoon Nashville Ballet’s soloists, corps de ballet and youth dancers all shined iridescently. Veteran ballerinas Mollie Sansone, Sadie Bo Harris and Kyla Rowser are sharing the roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen this month (Sansone and Rowser are also taking turns as the Dew Drop Fairy).

dewdropSansone got first shot as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and on Saturday she danced the famous act two “Pas de deux” with delicate, fluttering footwork and beautifully communicative upper-body motions. Christopher Stuart, as her Cavalier, was a powerful dancer who thrilled the crowd with athletic leaps and turns.

Harris danced the role of the Snow Queen with beautifully flowing lines and aristocratic sophistication. Rowser was a graceful, tasteful Dew Drop Fairy. Jon Upleger (Snow King) and Kevin Terry (Nutcracker Prince) both danced with an expert mix of poetry and bravado.

Act two’s national dancers – Spanish (Alexandra Meister, Julia Eisen and Mark Allyn Nimmo), Chinese (Brett Sjoblom), Arabian (Keenan McLaren as the Snake Lady and Judson Veach as the Charmer), Russian (Christopher Butler and Damian Drake) and Swiss  (Nicolas Scheuer and Julia Mitchell) – were all wonderfully expressive and energetic.

newmiceMelanie Eilenstine was an elegant and winsome Clara; Lloyd Ivester was a marvelously mischievous Fritz; and Eric Harris was a dapper and mysterious Drosselmeyer. As always, the ballet’s large youth cast made a lasting impression as party children, mice, soldiers, lambs and bonbons.

Half the fun of attending Nashville Ballet’s Nutcracker is the chance to hear the Nashville Symphony perform Tchaikovsky’s unforgettably beautiful score. On Saturday, conductor Christopher Norton conducted the NSO with color and vitality.

The Nutcracker is all about making memories. Nashvillians who want something magical to remember should plan to attend one of Nashville Ballet’s repeat performances.

PHOTO CREDITS: Nashville Ballet, Marianne Leach and Tim Broekema.

IF YOU GO

Nashville Ballet presents Nashville’s Nutcracker through Dec. 22 at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Andrew Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St. Tickets are $35 to $82 and are available at the TPAC box office or by calling (615) 782-4040. They are also available by clicking here.

Performance times are listed below:

Sunday, December 8 at 2 p.m.
Friday, December 13 at 7 p.m.
Saturday, December 14 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Sunday, December 15 at 2 p.m.
Thursday, December 19 at 7 p.m.
Friday, December 20 at 7 p.m.
Saturday, December 21 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.
Sunday, December 22 at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.

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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.