PRETTY BOYS AND PESTS: The men of “Nutcracker” help make Appalachian Ballet’s annual production a success
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
The handsome young guests of Appalachian Ballet Company may get the most face time this “Nutcracker” season, but the boys under those big mouse masks probably have more fun.
Australian native Aaron Smyth, who plays the Prince in the local dance troupe’s annual production, and Dustin Layton — a new male dancer who has the role of the Arabian and the Snow King — are the professional dancers. They’ll be front and center when the company performs “The Nutcracker” in Knoxville this weekend and Maryville on Dec. 8, and their fluid grace will elevate the dancing of the East Tennessee girls who make up Amy Morton Vaughn’s collection of ballerinas.
But they won’t be the only guys in the who get to show off their fancy footwork. A passel of local men have small but pivotal roles as mice. Although technically, when they’re life-sized and wearing giant heads, they probably qualify as rats.
“It’s rather difficult — it’s hard to see, and it’s hard to breathe,” said Maryville resident Pete McKensey, who got involved in “Nutcracker” a few years ago when he daughter — 17-year-old Cayllah McKensey, a senior at Maryville High School — volunteered him as one of the extras in the party scene.
“You put the costume on, and you’re just kind of running around the stage, battling with the soldiers,” he added. “You can’t really see anything, but it’s a good time.”
This year marks the 41st that the Maryville-based Appalachian Ballet Company has staged the beloved ballet, which tells the story of Clara, a young girl given an enchanted nutcracker as a Christmas present only to discover that it comes to life and transports her to a magical land. It’s based on the story “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice,” written by E.T.A. Hoffman; when Marius Petipa had the idea to choreograph the story into a ballet, it was based on a revision by French author Alexander Dumas and set to music by the classical conductor Tchaikovsky.
It’s a familiar production for Layton, who was 8 years old the first time he danced in “Nutcracker” in his native Mississippi.
“It’s such a timeless piece, in my opinion,” he said. “It was one of the biggest productions I had ever done when I was 8, and I’ve been doing it ever since. People ask me sometimes, ‘Don’t you get tired of doing it every year?’
“You would think yes, but I always find something new every year that adds to the magic. It’s a tradition. Families love it, and there are so many kids watching it for the first time.”
Currently involved in the “The Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway — he’ll leave East Tennessee for New York, where he’ll spend the holidays on stage — Layton was asked by principal dancer Kylie Morton to take part in this year’s production. Morton, Vaughn’s daughter, will dance the part of the Sugar Plum Fairy; she and Layton met when both danced professionally in North Carolina a couple of years ago.
Smyth was tapped two years ago, when Vaughn spread the word that she needed a professional dancer for the role of The Prince. Smyth — who now dances with the Royal Ballet in London — was recruited, and enjoyed his time with the company so much that he’s returned every year since.
“It was so amazing and fun; I had a great time, and I really love coming back,” he said. “Dustin and I have traveled around the country, and this is one of the biggest and most talented productions outside of major companies that we’ve found. It just keeps getting better every year, and the dancers are so talented. Everything about it is amazing.”
Layton and Smyth, however, have good reason to gush: They’re not suffocating beneath a foam-padded head that weighs as much as a bag of cat litter. Knoxville resident Mark Miller, who’s been involved in “Nutcracker” for the past seven or eight years, enjoys his time in the show as much as his professional male counterparts do. But while he may not be a professionally trained dancer, he works just as hard.
“Most of us mice are in the family scene in Act One, so as soon as it’s done, we have to change really quickly backstage to get into those costumes,” he said. “They’re really hot and hard to move around in.”
The goal on stage, he added, is to be “bigger than life” — which is something his fellow rodent, Maryville attorney Ted “Tab” Burkhalter, takes seriously.
“It’s fun being a rat,” Burkhalter said. “In theater, you’ve always got to have a little slapstick or comic relief, and that’s where we come in. We’re the comic relief amid all of the beautiful ballerinas. And we just get out there and have fun with the role.”
In fact, he added, he and his fellow mice band together as a unit in preparation for their on-stage battle with the Nutcracker’s army. Like a ball team, they pump themselves up before their appearance, he said.
“We high-five one another — knuckle bumps and everything — to prepare ourselves,” he said. “We may not win the battle, but we get to come out on stage and give it the best we can. And we get to torment Clara (danced by 13-year-old Kelsey Proffitt) as she comes running through us. I mean, that’s what rodents do best: aggravate.”
And, he added, “Nutcracker” season and his rat costume give him license to do that beyond the stage.
“I’ve even worn my rodent outfit to work to properly terrorize people in my office,” said Burkhalter, whose 6-year-old daughter, Abbie, makes her “Nutcracker” debut this year. “I’ve hidden under desks to scare people. I literally had one young lady literally jump about 10 feet into the air. And then she screamed and kicked me. It was a very proud moment, except I got stuck underneath the desk and couldn’t get out.
“I take pride in my rat role. My costume is traveling in my car with me right now. I’ll drive as the rat; I’ve even picked up my daughter from school as the rat. And everybody at the school likes that.
“The adult party scene, yeah, that’s great — but the rats, we have 15 minutes of fame in the show, and we try to maximize it as much as we can,” Burkhalter added. “I mean, we’re rodents, so we’re greedy, and we always want more.”