A tale of two Nutcrackers

You probably know the story by heart: There’s a Christmas party, a mysterious uncle appears with a bag of gifts, and Clara gets a toy Nutcracker that her bratty brother promptly breaks.

Then, in a through-the-looking-glass twist, the Christmas tree grows — as do the resident rodents — and the Nutcracker doll comes to life to defend Clara from the evil Rat King. It’s actually Clara who kicks butt (she flings her slipper at the vermin), and then the Nutcracker turns into a prince and the two travel to the Land of the Sweets.

Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, first performed more than a century ago, is as much a holiday staple as fruitcake.

And, accordingly, ballet companies are annually compelled to make their version of the holiday classic somehow stand out.

The traveling Moscow Ballet returns this year with a post-Thanksgiving performance of The Nutcracker, followed by Asheville Ballet’s version a couple weeks later. Xpress recently discovered how each company’s artistic director is striving to make The Nutcracker new again.

Mountain Xpress: “How long have you been performing The Nutcracker“?

Ann Dunn (director, Asheville Ballet): “Every year since 1974. Our production has 180 roles, and uses 80 dancers from many studios.”

MX: “How many shows per season?”

Laura Lee (public-relations director, Moscow Ballet): “We have two touring casts. The one [appearing in Asheville] visits 45 cities and performs 65 shows in two months.”

MX: “What makes your production different than those of other companies'”?

Valery Lantratov (artistic director, Moscow Ballet): “We dance in the Russian traditional school. Our interpretation is very different from others, because it shows the development of the plot.

“The essence of The Nutcracker is the same in all performances, but our direction has some advantages. Masha [aka Clara] is danced by one performer. The same ballerina shows the character develop from a little girl in the beginning, to a woman in the end.

“Action matters. Dancers don’t just dance; they give the essence of the character.”

Ann Dunn: “It’s the traditional ballet, but we do a couple extra things with it. The soldiers are these sharp tap dancers, and the rats are some hot Broadway jazz dancers.

“This year we have a [classical-ballet] Angel [formerly a modern-dance part], and $5,000 to $6,000 of new costumes, which makes an already sparkly and fabulous show more sparkly and fabulous. We combine the freshness of youth and the technical expertise of the professionals.

“Also, the Diana Wortham Theatre is such a beautiful place to experience this production. When it snows on stage, it’s Courier & Ives pretty.”

MX: “Why is the Sugar Plum Fairy such a coveted role among more advanced dancers, when, in fact, it’s a very small part?”

Valery Lantratov: “This fairy is the symbol of peace and love.” [The character is danced by the Angel in the Russian performance.]

Ann Dunn: “It’s tradition. There’s a lot of tradition in ballet. [‘The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’] is the last thing that happens in the show, so the show builds to that.”

MX: “Why is The Nutcracker the quintessential Christmas ballet?”

Valery Lantratov: “The plot tells us this story happens at Christmas. We want to deliver the message that in life, there’s not only positive moments, but difficult moments, too. Evil forces are represented by the Mouse King. But there are also brighter moments.

“This is our life, actually: We have the black and white — the harmony of the good world.”

Ann Dunn: “It’s a Christmas party. In the Land of the Sweets, the sweet things come from all of our cultures — the best of each of us. [The ballet] is an annual community ritual; the community gets together to go to The Nutcracker.”

MX: “What does this show offer to younger audiences that other ballets do not?”

Valery Lantratov: “Because we have the kids dance in the performance, every child in the house can imagine that he or she can take part in the production. This classic art is a way to bring people closer to the arts.”

AD: “It’s perfect for a young child because it’s about a girl on the cusp of [growing up] — the time of that rite of passage. What I see going on is that she passes through three realms: She must find courage … and discover her own power … [and] she must open herself to the beauty of winter.”

MX: “What’s your favorite part?”

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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