For those who don’t know the western part of the state, Asheville is home to a number of singular Christmas-related traditions. There’s Christmas at the Biltmore Estate, where one can tour George Vanderbilt’s sumptuously decorated mansion in music-filled candlelit tours. There’s the National Gingerbread House Competition at the Grove Park Inn, the fruits of which exhibit some of the most inventive and professionally executed confectionary creations one could imagine. In their good company is the Asheville Ballet’s annual production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet.
In its 37th year, the production features 100 dancers and over 300 stunning costumes in an adaptation of the beloved choreography first created by Marius Petipa and popularized in the US by George Balanchine. Ann Dunn, Director of the Asheville Ballet since 1996 and a former student of Balanchine, has reworked this classic work to include multiple dance idioms and allow for maximum participation by area dancers and others. There are marching formations by Asheville High School’s marching band that do battle with evil, jazz-dancing rats. There’s a hilariously tipsy maid in the first scene who teeters near the front of the stage. There are various dolls (among them, a Ninja), athletic tumbling Russians, a parade of angels, and a Rat Queen. There are also the traditional elements of the party scene at the Stahlbaum’s, the Battle with the Rats, and visits to the Land of Snow and the Kingdom of Sweets. Perhaps best of all is the spirit of the production written on the shining faces of the young children who are present in each scene.
By all accounts, Dunn’s got a winning recipe — so successful, in fact, that a larger hall may be in order. The opening party scene at the Stahlbaum’s home was charming, with its corps of maids dancing in anticipation of the festivities with solos by Sarah McGinnis as Head Maid and Lyle Laney as the Butler. Like any successful party, it got very crowded once all the guests arrived, leaving the dancers little room to maneuver. We meet Clara (Eleanor McDonald, a lovely interpretive dancer), Fritz (Brandon Silverman), Drosslemeyer (Bud Crawford) outfitted in a cape and eye patch bearing a bag of toys, and the Stahlbaums (Garth Grimball and Ann Dunn). The sound system, at first uncooperative with crackling speakers, provided the accompaniment for the evening.
Scene II takes place after the guests have left and the family has retired. Here on a darkened stage we meet bespangled, barefooted rats who scurry menacingly as a troop and in pairs, confronted by the life-sized Nutcracker (Lyle Laney) and finally vanquished by a squad of soldiers who march to the beat of an onstage antique field drum. Once Clara bravely dispatches the Rat Queen (Lara Polsky Gillease), the scene is one of transformation — the Nutcracker becomes a prince, the Cavalier of the Kingdom of Sweets, and Clara receives a pair of magical pointe slippers.
Scene III, the Land of Snow, was breathtakingly beautiful and the dancing by the Snow Queen (Celeste Cowan) and the ballet corps of Big and Little Snowflakes and Icicles an artistic highpoint of the program. The illusion of a snow-covered landscape with falling snow was magical, drawing appreciative oohs from the audience. The masterful choreography with groups of dancers frequently entering and exiting the stage ensured that the foreshortened stage area was never overwhelmed by the graceful floating, swirling figures.
Act II, the Kingdom of Sweets, began with a corps of trumpeting angels, led by Lead Angel (Caitlyn Swett). It’s here that Clara enjoys the talents put on display for her amusement — dances by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Megan Jones), solo and in a grand Pas de deux with the prince (Lyle Laney) who excelled with supports and high lifts, the Gum Drop Fairy (Deanna Loew), and a corps of new Flowers of Spring led by their Dewdrop Fairy (Sarah McGinnis). Among the accomplished exotic solo dancers were Allison Zachary Hertzberg (Lead Arabian), Alan Malpass (Ninja, Chinese), and Heidi Turlington (Chinese). Lauren Zitney was charming in her role as Lead Ginger. Clara ’s dancing, en pointe in this scene, was impressive in its interpretive range and technical sureness.
It’s a good thing to leave a production wanting more — more stage room, a live orchestra, and more funding for this remarkable enterprise. More performances follow during this weekend. Bravi Tutti!
See our calendar for details of the Saturday and Sunday, December 12 and 13 performances.