Every year, as Christmas approaches, members of the Nashville Ballet prepare to stage another production of It would be easy to understand if, after so many performances, the dancers were utterly tired of this annual holiday favorite. But, to the contrary, each person involved with Nutcracker looks forward to the production: For seasoned pros, it provides a chance to revisit and reinvent a classic work, while newcomers are grateful for the chance to perform in front of an attentive and appreciative audience.
Paul Vasterling is excited about this year’s even though he has performed or staged the work more than 200 times. Since the multitalented ballet master and choreographer-in-residence will appear again this season as the mysterious Drosselmeyer, he’ll have one of the best seats in the housethe sugar-crystalled throne in the Land of the Sweetsfor viewing his recently choreographed version of “The Dance of the French Reed Flutes.” Swathed in a purple-lined black cape and conjuring live toy soldiers and harlequins from boxes, Vasterling’s Drosselmeyer evoked spooky awe from kids who were in last year’s audiences; some even asked that he bestow a Nutcracker doll upon them, as he does his niece Clara.
But Vasterling enjoys Nutcracker most for the way the ballet and particularly Tchai-kovsky’s music have entered his life as a holiday ritual. “The music represents ballet, and it represents Christmas,” he says. It brings back the thrill of our childhood Christmases, when we experienced Santa Claus and his team of gift-bearing reindeer as pure magic. Thus the ballet and its gorgeous, varied score reawaken in its audiences each year the “uncomplicated, unconditional joy” that, for Vasterling, is the very definition of Christmas spirit.
Janek Schergen, Nashville Ballet’s artistic director, looks forward to this year’s performances of Nutcracker for slightly different reasons. The series of ethnic-based dances in Act 2 will feature a new “Chinese Variation,” inspired by the choreography of Schergen’s longtime friend and collaborator, Choo-San Goh. The latter was “insulted,” albeit good-naturedly, by the original Ivanov choreography, which resembled nothing of the traditional Asian dances he’d grown up with. For the version audiences will see in this year’s performance, Schergen, the artistic director of the Choo-San Goh and H. Robert Magee Foundation, has drawn on his memory of Choo-San Goh’s choreography and staging of the Chinese dance.
Schergen also points out that each year’s Nutcracker brings with it “a different set of kids” from the School of Nashville Ballet. The performances of the youngest cast members, he says, “mean a lot to the parents and a lot to the school.” Indeed, several older dancers from the school have recently been promoted to full company membership, having come up through the ranks of trainee and apprentice. Schergen feels strongly that one of the best reasons to attend repeat performances of Nutcracker is to have the opportunity to watch the company’s development.
Kristin Hakala, whom Schergen describes as “an up-and-coming ballerina,” speaks with excitement about dancing her first leading role in this year’s she’ll alternate the role of Snow Queen with Karen Burns. Hakala was selected to be a trainee with the company when she was an 11th-grader. The trainees’ schedule is a grueling one, she explains: They participate in all company classes and rehearsals and then attend the school’s classes in the evenings. Female trainees and apprentices sometimes dance as members of the corps de ballet. “Dance of the Snowflakes” and “Waltz of the Flowers” are two famous corps sections of and Hakala recalls the exhausting late-night, post-school class rehearsals for these crowd-pleasing pieces.
Yet Hakala and Marcus Bradford, who’ll appear as the Toy Soldier and as one of the Russian dancers in this year’s feel that their early years as company trainees were invaluable, and not just in terms of being awarded these particularly coveted roles. Bradford points out that, while trainees don’t perform as much or as often as full company members, they are often understudies for principal roles and must be prepared to go onstage at a moment’s notice. At rehearsals, the trainees and apprentices stand at the edges of the studio, trying to learn the counts and steps of various solo roles, but without the space to practice this jeté or that cabriole. Despite the frustrations that go along with this aspect of “being on the farm team,” as Bradford puts it, the concentration and memory skills developed during those years at the studio’s margins gradually enable dancers to learn a sequence of steps with astonishing rapidity.
Lisa Martin came to the School of Nashville Ballet when she was in 10th grade. She’s happy to be featured in the Spanish Dance of this year’s her second series of performances as a full company member. Martin also teaches Level IV classes at the school to students between the ages of 11 and 14. It’s “Miss Lisa” who gives the young female students their first instruction in dancing on point, that longed-for moment in the lives of aspiring ballerinas.
Describing the attempts of the little girls in Levels I, II or III to rise while walking around the school’s halls, Martin remembers the significance of toe shoes in her own life. As a high school junior, she was asked to dance a corps role in and the letter of invitation specified that “they’d give me shoes!” Three pairs a week, to be exact. The boxy-toed pointe shoes aren’t cheap, but they wear out quickly and thus represent one of the major costs of ballet training. Up until that point, Martin says, her parents had paid for every pair of shoes and every class or private lesson she’d taken.
Featured last year in Graham Lustig’s and ready to appear for the next two weekends as Dewdrop’s Cavalier, Brian Murphy speaks candidly about the advantages and disadvantages of being a male trainee and apprentice, both here in Nashville and elsewhere. Compared to the number of little girls who dream of becoming ballerinas, there are fewer little boys who dream of becoming . Thus the competition for scholarships, company positions, and roles is less intense. However, as one of two male dancers with the Cuyahoga Youth Ballet in his native Ohio, Murphy was pushed into performing certain roles before he felt he was ready.
Such acceleration isn’t unusual for male dancers, many of whom “feel rushed,” Murphy explains. While he loves the thrill of performing, especially in the diversity of styles that the second act of Nutcracker demands, he’s intent on establishing a firm technical base these days. He has sought the best possible instruction, attending summer sessions at Richmond and Chautauqua and, during the remainder of the year, working with Schergen, whom he feels has particularly good instincts regarding the proper pacing of a danseur’s training.
Along with the opportunity to wear resplendent costumes and to rehearse to the famed Tchaikovsky score, performing in Nutcracker allows individual artists to display their increasing skill each year. Yet the members of Nashville Ballet are equally eager for our community to recognize the rapid maturing of the troupe as a whole. “This isn’t our company,” says Marcus Bradford. “It’s Nashville’s company.” Concerned that many people in our city don’t attend performances because they think of ballet as an elitist art form, Bradford points to his own “thoroughly middle-class upbringing” and extends an eloquent invitation to potential new members of the audience. “Ballet is about stepping out of everyday life and into beauty, especially at Christmas,” he says. “If you come, we’ll open your eyes.”
Nashville Ballet presents Nutcracker Dec. 8-17 in TPAC’s Jackson Hall. Call 741-7777 for more information.
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