Appalachian Ballet Returns With Its Annual production of "The Nutcracker"

By last Saturday evening, the fantasy of that morning's early season snowfall had come and gone. But as the memory of that falling snow was fading, another winter holiday fantasy was drawing red-cheeked and bundled-up children of all ages into the Civic Auditorium. The Appalachian Ballet Company's production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker was there to continue in bright and bold fashion what has become a family tradition of the holidays—just as have similar productions in big cities and small towns all over the country.

Oddly, though it may seem that The Nutcracker has always been a feature of the holiday season, the ballet was not seen in the United States until the San Francisco Ballet produced it in 1944. It was another 10 years before George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet set the wheels of tradition in motion with their version, which has influenced, in one way or another, many subsequent productions in the U.S. Often, those productions are tremendously important financially, returning a significant percentage of operating revenue for a ballet company's entire season of performances.

The Appalachian Ballet Company's The Nutcracker, under the artistic direction of choreographer Amy Moore Morton, is now in its 38th season. This production has become not just a theatrical tradition for Knoxville holiday audiences, but also has an important role in training and encouraging potential young local dancers. The company's 2009 Nutcracker was a mix of guest professionals in the leading roles and company members and students—a mix necessary if it is to both entertain and inspire.

Appearing as the Sugarplum Fairy was Christine Rennie, and as the Prince, Eddie Mikrut. Their Grande Pas de deux was a joy, featuring Mikrut's expressive and nuanced power, and Rennie's beautiful and precise body control. Equally impressive were the Snow Queen and King, Heather Wilcoxon and Ted Seymour, who also danced the "Arabian Coffee." Other notable roles in the Act II Land of Sweets were Anne Souder as the "Spanish Chocolate"; Mika Yoshida and Megan Bledsoe as the "Chinese Tea"; Brittany Blum as the "Russian Candy"; and Stephanie Swain as the "Dew Drop Fairy." Carly Ross offered an excellent Clara, the little girl in whose dream we experience the magical visions. Clara's jealous brother Fritz was portrayed by Dominic Souder.

Of course, a tradition like The Nutcracker fosters assumptions of what the production should look like, sound like, and contain. For example, the pivotal Act I character of Drosselmeyer, the toy maker, is generally portrayed as an older, eccentric uncle-type character; the role is often performed by an actor or older former dancer. And in fact that makes perfect theatrical sense. This production's Drosselmeyer, however, was Samuel Wood, a fine twentysomething dancer in the company who cast a dashing figure, but was anything but older, eccentric, or a character.

While one might think that having a live orchestra to perform the grand Tchaikovsky score is an absolute must, many otherwise notable productions around the country have resorted to recorded music or reduced instrumental forces. Thankfully, the Appalachian Ballet is not one of those—and we can hope they never will be. In the pit was the marvelous Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sande MacMorran with tight precision and surprisingly brisk tempos.

Ballet is theater, after all, and theatrical magic is at the heart of The Nutcracker. Scenic designer Ernie Foster's pleasantly suggestive set, complete with some nice reveals and scrim effects, worked well enough. However, other theatrical aspects of the production proved to be the evening's disappointment. Ballet, and dance in general, depends to a tremendous degree on lighting to delineate and highlight the movement of the dancers, to reveal the theatrical space, and to symbolically support the choreography. Unfortunately, lighting designer John Horner accomplished none of those things, over-lighting almost every scene to the point of visual blandness, including what should have been a beautifully magical and visually stunning Finale.

Undoubtedly, though, the tradition of Appalachian Ballet's The Nutcracker will return again and again—offering a showcase for young dancers, the artistry of ballet professionals, and a warm evening of joyful entertainment in the cold of winter.