Appalachian Ballet Caps Four Decades of 'The Nutcracker' With Another Satisfying Production

Suddenly, it seems, Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker is being talked about everywhere. Alastair Macaulay, the senior dance critic for The New York Times, believing that the phenomenon of the ubiquitous American Nutcracker says as much about arts in the U.S. as it does about the ballet itself, is on a marathon journey to see, and write about, as many productions as he can visit before the end of the year—probably 25 or so. But that will be a drop in the bucket of the several hundred scattered around every corner of the country. In Knoxville alone, there will have been three or four productions—and more if you count ice dancing.

There is no indication that the Appalachian Ballet Company’s The Nutcracker that opened last weekend in Knoxville was on Macaulay’s itinerary. If it were, he would discover a production with a surprising longevity—its 39th season—but one that, like other regional Nutcrackers, mixes guest professional dancers and community non-professionals in a traditional entertainment, as well as being a stepping stone for aspiring young dancers. This production of The Nutcracker continues this weekend at another venue: the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville.

What is probably not typical of other regional ballets has been ABC artistic director Amy Morton’s staunch determination to use live music for her Nutcracker when other companies have given in to financial constraints and settled for a recorded Tchaikovsky score. Whatever sacrifices had to be made were worth it—the presence of the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Sande MacMorran, has made all the difference in elevating Appalachian Ballet’s production above its regional peers.

Morton has kept this season’s Nutcracker in the family. Her daughter, Kylie, a 22-year-old dance professional, was making her first appearance in the lead role of the Sugarplum Fairy, and turned in an excellent one. Morton’s younger daughter, 13-year-old Laura, danced a gorgeous and vividly theatrical portrayal of Clara, the young girl around whom the story revolves. It is quite obvious that both have dance and theatre in their blood.

Opposite Kylie Morton’s Sugarplum Fairy was Adam Schiffer as the Cavalier. Schiffer, a native of Hungary and now a member of Carolina Ballet, added a welcome precision and strength, as well as a commanding stage presence. In addition to Morton and Schiffer’s Pas De Deux, another highlight of the Act II Land of the Sweets was a marvelous Brittany Blum as the Russian Candy. Warren Perry’s old Drosselmeyer the toy maker was wonderfully eccentric.

In this production, two key plot points were a bit diminished: the clear indication that we are entering the little girl’s dream, and the magical transformation of a fearsome Nutcracker into the handsome Cavalier/Prince. However, the Snowflake scene that closes Act I (complete with a lovely women’s choir), made up for any plot indiscretions. It was, in a word, stunning. You’ll want to catch one of their remaining performances.

Real snowflakes were falling in Oak Ridge on Sunday as the Foothills Brass Quintet made an appearance courtesy of the Oak Ridge Civic Music Association’s Chamber Music Series. Despite the group’s name, their foothills are not in the East Tennessee mountains, but rather some 2,000 miles to the northwest in Calgary, Canada. Founded in 1981 by trumpeter Chris Morrison, the group also currently consists of Jay Michalak on trumpet, Joanna Schulz on horn, Catie Hickey on trombone, and Bob Nicholson on tuba.

The program they offered, “BrassScapes,” ran the gamut from Baroque music through opera to American jazz and pop. But, as anyone but a brass player will admit, two hours of brass sonority, even beautifully played brass sonority, as this was, can be tedious.

However, there was not a tedious moment during the performance, thanks to nicely conceived theatrics and the distinct personality that each member projected. Imagine music from the opera Carmen taken by the tuba, or Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” from Turandot carried by the trombone, and you can possibly visualize the level of character needed to pull it off and make it endlessly entertaining.

Matching the wintry weather outside, the quintet ended with an amazing brass arrangement of Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” in which each member took one of the percussion effects in addition to their own instrument: sleigh bells, horse hoofs, whip cracks, and, of course, the obligatory horse whinny from the trumpet. You could almost feel the snowflakes falling.

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