One year ago, Nashville Ballet unveiled a new version of the Nutcracker. Striving for local relevance and a nouveau visual style, artistic director Paul Vasterling's reimagining of the timeless story moved the setting to the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition, an event whose multicultural components play nicely into Tchaikovsky's brilliant music, in particular the Act 2 series of exotic waltzes and dances. For those who missed the 2008 debut, Vasterling's second mounting is in its final weekend, and it behooves ardent culture vultures and holiday revelers to head to TPAC to catch it in all its splendor and beauty.
This Nutcracker is much more than a dance piece—it's high theater, largely because Vasterling marshaled a team of fabulously talented designers to help realize his grand vision. Hence, while the ballet's most gifted front-line performers offer us elegant classicism and admirable athleticism in their finest moments, all around them swirls a jolting, sometimes gasp-inducing display of costumes, settings and lighting. It's highbrow eye candy, to be sure, and the pertinent elements are faithfully in sync.
Shigeru Yaji's scenery is spectacular, from a gorgeous ice-skating pond at Shelby Bottom to the warm grandeur of Belle Meade Mansion (the template for the home of the ballet's young heroine, Clara) to the glittery kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy. In concert with Scott Leathers' gorgeous lighting effects, these tableaux are presented to us via surprising reveals. Huge, elegant draperies rise and fall away dramatically as each sumptuous new setting comes into view, including a beautiful snow scene upon the arrival of the Snow Queen and King, plus a stupendous launching of a Christmas tree that appears to vault endlessly up into the stratosphere of Andrew Jackson Hall.
Not to be outdone is costume designer Campbell Baird, who captures the festive 19th century domestic dress styles with flair but really shines with his take on the ballet's more fanciful elements: an oversized dancing bear, mice (both large and small), soldiers, Native Americans and especially the Act 2 succession of dancers representing international cultures (Spanish, Chinese, Persian, Russian, etc.). Almost always eschewing primary colors, Baird gives us shades of red, blue, purple and green that achieve both subtlety and high sensuality.
There is a feast for ears as well as eyes in this production, since Vasterling's retelling of Clara's dreamy Christmas adventures directs new attention to the Tchaikovsky, which soars with the Nashville Symphony under the baton of Paul Gambill. Yes, we've heard it a million times—even in TV commercials—but the master composer's gift for pure melody never fails to both charm and astound, and his rich orchestrations command renewed reverence with every comical clarinet, fluttering flute, well-placed glockenspiel and dramatic blast of horns and strings. Even the gentle harp lead-in to "The Waltz of the Flowers"—so often overlooked once that piece kicks in with gusto—seemed a revelation.
This is a ballet, after all, so let's not overlook the dancers. With the notable exception of Clara's uncle, Drosselmeyer (Eric Harris in a fantastically magical turn), all the key roles are double (and sometimes triple) cast. Last Saturday evening's lineup appeared optimal, with Christine Rennie as the Snow Queen and Sadie Harris as the Sugar Plum Fairy, though Vasterling's ability to mix and match his veterans assures consistency every time out. Younger performers Grace Rich (Snake Lady) and Mollie Sansone (Dewdrop Fairy) were standouts at the viewed performance. The major male dancers were Eddie Mikrut and Jon Upleger, with Brendon LaPier as the Nutcracker. The role of Clara is shared by Elizabeth Graves and Anna Celeste Harrer throughout the run.
And hats off to Vasterling for directing some 200 youth cast performers through their many paces with energy, confidence and theatrical panache.
Vasterling's goal when first conceiving this production was to have a Nutcracker of Nashville's own for many years to come. He has succeeded in high fashion—in fact, Music City theatergoers' taste for the traditional rendition has likely been spoiled for good.
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