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Dance Review: Magic abounds in Nashville Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’

nut4.jpt“You should know that I plan to scream my head off as soon as this show is over,” said the nice lady who sat next to me on Saturday afternoon at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center for the opening of Nashville Ballet’s annual production of the The Nutcracker.

This lady, it turned out, was the piano teacher of Tilley Davis, one of three dancers cast as Clara in this month’s production of Tchaikovsky’s perennially popular holiday chestnut. Davis danced the role of the young girl who dreams of a magical world of sweets with an elegance that would be the envy of a ballerina of any age. By the end of the performance, she had justly earned hers screams and ovations.

So did the rest of Nashville Ballet’s large and terrific cast, whose spirited performances got everyone in Andrew Jackson Hall into the holiday mood. Paul Vasterling, the ballet’s artistic director, has created a localized version of the classic ballet called Nashville’s Nutcracker, which is set at the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition. The production opens with a prologue, with Clara and the mysterious Drosselmeyer touring the exposition, seeing a Persian snake charmer, Chinese puppeteer, and Russian doll maker, among others. These characters settle into Clara’s subconscious and become the national dancers in Act 2.

After a walk across the bridge at Shelby Bottoms, Clara, Drosselmeyer and the rest of the party guests (including a hilarious Dancing Bear) arrive at the Stahlbaum’s home, which scenic designer Shigeru Yaji has created to look like the old Belle Meade Mansion, complete with a grand, Gone With the Wind-style staircase. In keeping with the Tennessee theme, the party children play with an Andrew Jackson toy soldier, who during a dream sequence battles with a Red Coat Rat and his horde of (utterly adorable) Scottish mice. Costume designer Campbell Baird’s stylish handiwork captures the spirit of Victorian-era Nashville.

nut1Vasterling’s staging of The Nutcracker puts a heavy emphasis on magic, so it’s not surprising that much of the Act 1 party scene comes across as a kind of David Copperfield-like magic act. On Saturday, Drosselmeyer (energetically danced by Christopher Butler) mesmerized the children onstage (and in the audience) with his sleight-of-hand tricks, making a crystal ball levitate and disappear, turning a feather into a gravity-defying magic wand. This Drosselmeyer did everything but saw Clara’s Governess (played with a hefty helping of Christmas ham by Kristin Young) in half. Well there’s always next season.

Of course, the real magic in any production of The Nutcracker is the dancing, and on Saturday Nashville Ballet’s dancers outdid themselves. All four of the company’s veteran ballerinas – Sadie Bo Sommer, Kayla Rowser, Mollie Sansone and Alexandra Meister – are sharing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy this month. On Saturday afternoon, Rowser gave an effervescent account of this role, dancing the Act 2 “Pas de Deux” with charm and sensitivity. Judson Veach was an attentive and athletic Cavalier.

Sommer was magnificent as the Snow Queen, her beautifully flowing lines capturing the regal elegance of her character. Meister was equally successful as the Dew Drop Fairy, dancing this role with sensuous grace. Nicolas Scheuer was a dashing Nutcracker Prince, and Jon Upleger an expressive Snow King.

The various national dancers of Act 2 – Spanish, Chinese, Arabian (featuring Keenan McLaren as an especially slinky snake and Damian Drake as her Charmer), Russian and Swiss – were all splendidly characterful. The ballet’s large youth cast of party children, mice, soldiers, lambs, and bonbons were all delightful. Clark Murphy was a wonderfully mischievous Fritz.

This month’s production of Nashville Nutcracker features no less an ensemble than the Nashville Symphony Orchestra in the pit, and on Saturday afternoon conductor Nathan Fifield led the ensemble with color and vigor. It helped make for a memorable performance, one that appealed to the six-year-old in all of us. Anyone looking to share in this holiday cheer would do well to waltz over to TPAC for one of the repeat performances.

Nashville’s Nutcracker runs through Dec. 23 at TPAC. Tickets are available here.

Photo credits: Heather Thorne

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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.