Magic and theatricality are key words of inspiration for the dancers involved in Asheville Ballet’s annual production of The Nutcracker. “The story is really important to us because it’s aimed at young people and families,” says Ann Dunn, the director of the dance company, now in its 51st performance season.
The curtain rises on a bright holiday celebration, where all generations of a household gather beside a Christmas tree to exchange gifts. In this scene, leading lady Clara is given a precious gift: a wooden nutcracker. That night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Clara returns to the Christmas tree to find her nutcracker. This is when the wooden doll comes to life. Rats creep in from the dark and Clara and her toy battle them in the night. When Clara strikes the rat with her shoe, the nutcracker transforms into a prince.
From there, Dunn says, “The chandeliers, the Christmas tree and the room evaporate. Suddenly the audience finds itself in winter forest of snow-covered furs. The snow flakes start dancing to Tchaikovsky's beautiful music and then it begins to snow on stage, covering the dancers and the floor.” From this snowy scene, the dancers venture to the Land of Sweets, where Clara meets sugar-fairies and sweet-candy characters from across the world.
For Dunn, The Nutcracker recreates the wonder of childhood, a feeling that propels the audience from one fantastical kingdom to another. Beneath the beauty of each scene, however, greater themes are pronounced: “The overall story is a rite of passage for a young person from childhood to young adulthood,” says Dunn. “In order to make that rite of passage, you need influences from lots and lots of different cultures, places and world views.”
This is where an array of animated, multicultural characters come in. In the Land of Sweets, Clara is introduced to chocolate dancers from Spain; a troupe of Arabian dancers representing coffee; an all-male baklava brigade from Russia (performing Russian-folk dances); tea dancers from China; and delicate pieces of marzipan dressed in white tutus from France.
Though Dunn has directed The Nutcracker since 1996, when she bought the Fletcher School of Dance and inherited the company’s production, staging a show that features 100 dancers from across Western North Carolina is no easy task. “Since this is the city’s nonprofit ballet company,” says Dunn, “dancers are coming in from all over, from studios in Brevard, Waynesville, from Western Carolina University, and from studios here as well,” including local dance teacher Jodi Taylor and five of her students from Asheville Dance Revolution.
In a production of this scale, “You want to be the best you can possibly be,” says Garth Grimball, who has been dancing in the seasonal concert for four years now, taking on more advanced roles in each production. This year, Grimball has even choreographed a trio involving dancing harlequin and columbine dolls. “You want to give it your all and let people know how much you’re putting into it. That’s one of the wonderful things about doing the school shows,” he says, describing the two children’s performances presented at Diana Wortham Theatre, staged especially for area youth. “Nothing is more rewarding than performing for 500 children.”
When it comes to performing The Nutcracker for younger audiences, Dunn says, even “the snow falls for the school shows — if we don’t create the magic for them, we haven’t done our job. I know that there is at least one child out there, at least one, [who is] inspired by the experience of being in a theater.”
In addition, Asheville Ballet promises to create a vibrant atmosphere using elaborate sets, a lighted Christmas tree and elegant costumes designed by B.J. and Bud Crawford, the co-owners of Earth Guild and the Asheville Ballet’s costume managers and coordinators. To provide an example of the carefully crafted outfits, Dunn describes the tea dancers representing China as wearing Chinese tunics with flat hats, all dressed in red and black, with the soloists dancer performing in a silk, capped-sleeve dress embroidered with a dragon and red-ruby eyes.
“It’s a metaphorical feast of dance,” concludes Dunn, encouraging the community — young and old alike — to let the magic of the ballet kindle the spirit of the holiday season.
— Aiyanna Sezak-Blatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
what: The Nutcracker
where: Diana Wortham Theatre, 2 S. Pack Square
when: Friday, Dec. 10, at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 11, at 2:30 and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 12, at 2:30 p.m. ($50-$25 for adults/$20 students/$18 children. Info: ashevilleballet.com. Tickets: 257-4530 or dwtheatre.com).