Local Color

Regional Nutcrackers give a beloved classic new life.
Published in the Dec 2008/Jan 2009 issue.

Audiences at Nashville Ballet’s new production of The Nutcracker may notice several unexpected guests at Clara’s Christmas party this year. Among those in attendance: the turn-of-the-century chancellor of Vanderbilt University and Lucille La Verne, a Nashville native best known for having been the voice of the Wicked Queen in Disney’s animated version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Andrew Jackson even makes a first-act cameo: When the Nutcracker battles the Mouse King, Jackson and the Tennessee Volunteer Army join him on the front lines.

Such striking alterations to the venerable holiday classic are part of Nashville Ballet’s ambitious effort to revitalize The Nutcracker—by regionalizing it. Around the country, at least six other companies have taken a similar approach. Their stakeholders contend that regionalizing The Nutcracker—the main source of annual revenue for most companies—invigorates the ballet’s traditional audience while enticing newcomers with a production steeped in the familiar.

A Civic Connection
In Charleston Ballet Theatre’s Nutcracker, for example, the second act transports Clara not to the Kingdom of the Sweets, but to the Magnolia Plantation, the oldest public gardens in the country.

“From a marketing standpoint, and an artistic standpoint, you have to give your audience members some reason to keep coming back each year—not just for the tradition of going to The Nutcracker the same day that you decorate your Christmas tree, but something that will make your audience excited,” says Jill Eathorne Bahr, the company’s resident choreographer.

Of course, tweaking tradition can be a gamble. But it has paid off, according to Bahr. Twenty-one years after Charleston’s regionally themed Nutcracker debuted, it continues to inspire dancers and audiences, while boosting civic pride.

“When a company decides to produce a new Nutcracker, they’re giving something solid back to the community—not just a one-shot repertory piece, but something that represents the community. It’s a win-win situation for the balletomanes of the world and the forefathers of the city,” says Bahr.

History and Fantasy
Six years after the première of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s regionally themed Nutcracker, Terrence Orr vividly recalls the trepidation he felt following in the footsteps of George Balanchine’s beloved version.

“I was scared to death—are you kidding?” says the company’s artistic director. “But when I arrived here in 1997, they had been doing the same Nutcracker for a long time. I wanted to do something new—something that utilizes the city’s rich history. And I do feel like this is still a warm and traditional Nutcracker.”

In Orr’s production, the proscenium features a replica of the Kaufmann’s department store clock, a legendary downtown landmark and meeting place for shoppers. The backdrop of the snow scene is a view from atop Mount Washington looking down on the city’s three rivers. The setting of the second act is modeled after a well-known amusement park.

“I think it’s wonderful when I have people come three years in a row and say, ‘I saw that you added this,’” says Orr. “And I have added a lot of details. Or they will say that this version is shorter than the other one—but it’s not by any means. It’s just more interesting to them.”

It’s especially gratifying to Orr when “audience members tell me they want to come back again the next year and bring their neighbors—and not just children between the age of 4 and 8.”

Clara on the Midway
Nashville Ballet Artistic Director Paul Vasterling hopes that reaction to his revamped version will be equally enthusiastic. The Nutcracker accounts for 65 percent of the company’s income, which puts a lot of pressure on Vasterling’s new production.        

“I danced in Nashville’s original production in 1989, so the way it was conceived kind of lives with me,” he notes. “It was important to me to maintain that heritage—a magical holiday story from a child’s point of view, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the toys, the snow scene—while overlaying it with Nashville history.”   

“It’s scary to do something fresh, and you walk a fine line when you change anything that is tradition,” he says. “I would still be worried now, had it not turned out the way it has, which is really grand, really lush and really beautiful, along the lines of the old production.”

In the early stages of planning his Nutcracker, Vasterling spent hours at the public library digging through its local archives. When he came across records and sepia-toned photos of Nashville’s Centennial Exposition of 1897, he realized that he’d hit on a time and place to ground the ballet.

Descriptions of the Vanity Fair, a midway complete with performers from around the world, read to Vasterling like the ideal setting for The Nutcracker’s second act.

Vasterling is quick to point out that the local details he’s embedded in the production are not meant to serve as a history lesson. Rather, they’re intended as touchstones for loyal Nutcracker-goers and new audiences alike.

“Those of us who are in ballet breathe it and live it, but to most people in Nashville, ballet is quite foreign,” he says. “The Nutcracker is the portal to most people’s experience with ballet, so you want to make people feel comfortable coming in and seeing it.”

A former newspaper reporter, Nicole Peradotto is a longtime arts writer who lives in upstate New York.