Imagine, if you will, awakening to an East Tennessee holiday calendar without “The Nutcracker” on it.
The Civic Auditorium in downtown Knoxville would be dark and empty on Dec. 7 and 8, as would the stage at the Clayton Center for the Arts the following weekend. Blount County’s resident ballet troupe, Appalachian Ballet Company, would be a much smaller ensemble, perhaps shuttered for the holiday season, the inflatable Nutcracker that’s an omnipresent fixture on West Broadway Avenue in downtown Maryville nowhere to be seen.
The dancers themselves, along with their families and teachers, would look to other productions of the classic holiday ballet, perhaps wistfully wishing they had an outlet in which to dance as costumed mice and partygoers and lithe members of the Snow Corps. Patrons who have made “The Nutcracker” a part of their holiday tradition would put on Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score and long to hear a live orchestra fill a concert hall with notes of bombast and delicacy.
The Christmas season, no doubt, would be a little drearier. And Appalachian Ballet Company Artistic Director Amy Morton Vaughn would have no idea how to pass the extra time she dedicates to it each and every year.
“For the ballet company to lose those patrons and audience members, and for audiences and children to miss out on seeing ‘Nutcracker,’ it would be devastating to our existence,” Vaughn told The Daily Times recently. “I think for me, I just don’t know what I would do with my time. For the past nine weeks, it’s been a constant. And for our dancers, ‘Nutcracker’ is kind of a milestone each year, as they go from being a baby mouse to maybe an angel to maybe getting to be in the party scene to being a soldier.
“The goal, for them, is to work up to Snow Corps or have some sort of big solo role in Act 2. For them, each year is kind of a growing-up process, everything from getting to be with the big girls and be in the upstairs dressing rooms to the parts in the production. They have a lot of little traditions they all look forward to.”
In that sense, no part is too small. Vaughn knows that full well: The first time she set foot in Van Metre School of Dance, then company Director Cheryl Van Metre sized up the 13-year-old aspiring dancer and cast her as a toy soldier. The year was 1974, and the two daughters who would become part of the company’s legacy — Kylie Morton Berry, the company’s rehearsal mistress, one of its principal dancers and the Sugarplum Fairy in this year’s “Nutcracker,” along with younger sister Laura Morton, who will dance the role of the Snow Queen — were still several years in the future.
“I was a new dance student, and I hadn’t taken dance for very long, but because of my acting skills as a toy soldier, I really stood out to Mrs. Van Metre,” Vaughn said. “That was the way I caught her eye and got her to pay attention to me. Sometimes the dancers think, ‘Oh, this isn’t an important part,’ but if you don’t have toy soldiers, they can’t fight the rats, and then you don’t have a story. Every part is important to make the story happen, and the fact that I used my opportunity to be the best soldier I could be helped me get bigger parts in the years to come.”
In the ballet world, “The Nutcracker” is a staple of holiday performances by companies around the world. It tells the story of Clara (played this year by 13-year-old Charlotte Bollschweiler), 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.
Within Blount, “The Nutcracker” signals the start of the holidays for the company and the supporting community of parents, patrons and associates. In the beginning, the company — known back then as the Maryville-Alcoa Civic Ballet Company and founded by Van Metre — put together the classic holiday ballet for a performance in the old Wilson Chapel on the Maryville College campus.
After two years, however, the production outgrew that small stage, and the company moved its annual production to Knoxville’s Civic Auditorium. Over the past four decades, the show has grown into a lavish spectacle valued at half a million dollars, replete with sumptuous costumes, star-quality choreography, live music provided by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and an attention to detail unrivaled in terms of opulence and splendor.
“Truly, ‘Nutcracker’ is obviously our biggest (show) that draws our biggest crowds,” Vaughn said. “In terms of the public, what would grandmamma and granddaddy do if they couldn’t take their grandkids to see ‘Nutcracker?’ It’s a tradition in so many people’s families, and for my parents and the volunteers, they get so excited. We got our ‘Nutcracker’ T-shirts in the other day, and one of the parents said, ‘Now it feels like Christmas.’ When it’s time, it just feels like the holidays are near.”
And within the Appalachian Ballet Company, “Nutcracker” signals the beginning of a litany of traditions that are as sacred as the holiday traditions observed by families across the country. There’s the “secret Santa” gift exchange, in which members of the senior company draw names to buy presents for one another. For the dancers who select the name of one of the guest artists — Da’Von Doane of the Dance Theatre of Harlem and Connor Walsh of the Houston Ballet, both of whom will dance the roles of the Cavaliers; James La Russa of Atlanta-based contemporary dance company Staibdance, cast as the toymaker Drosselmeyer; and Alex Gonzaga as the Snow Queen and Laura Morton herself as the Snow Queen, both of whom are in residence at Terminus Modern Ballet in Atlanta — it’s a way to connect with professional dancers who both mentor and inspire the younger dancers, Vaughn said.
“We have all of these traditions,” she said. “Even when we warm up backstage, we have an ‘ugly sweater day,’ where all of the dancers wear an ugly sweater. One year, one of the dancers had lights strung around her body, and on top of her head, she had a star that had a picture of my face on top! We just do a lot of fun things like that. I compare it to how families have their holiday traditions at home — when they open gifts, how they open gifts, the games they might play afterward. The ballet does that as well, but we have nine weeks of it.”
As the shepherd of the entire affair, Vaughn never lets the fun and frivolity take away from the company’s crucial mission: putting together a version of “The Nutcracker” that’s anchored in tradition but explores new ways of telling a classic story every year.
“It’s a tradition for us to give the audience something new,” she said. “This year, we have a lot of new things. We’ve changed some of the choreography, like the doll dances, and our new guest artist who will be playing Drosselmeyer this year, James La Russa, is playing it very mysterious. He’s going to wear the eye patch, and he wants to be all in black — it’ll be very much more magician-like. Even his movements, because he’s more of a contemporary modern dancer than a ballet dancer, are very interesting and unique, and it changes the dynamics of the whole way we do the party scene.”
There’s also new choreography for the Snow Corps; new costumes for the first time in 25 years, as well as new choreography, for the Waltz of Flowers; and an African American prince (Doane) for the first time. And of course, there’s the lavish score, which will be performed live by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra. There have been times in the past that patrons and board members have questioned whether the expenditure on a live orchestra is worth the cost; other companies, Vaughn pointed out, perform to pre-recorded tracks. Tradition, however, is a powerful motivator for keeping that collaboration alive.
“Yes, it’s expensive, but what that gives to the community, to have a live orchestra perform for a big ballet like ‘Nutcracker,’ is just part of it,” she said. “It makes the dancers better, and it makes for a much better performance. To me, doing it with taped music is just not an option. When the Knoxville Symphony plays, especially in that pit at the Clayton Center, it’s so big and grand that it just fills you up.”
There has been talk over the years, Vaughn added, of modernizing “Nutcracker” and perhaps bringing the story into the present day. There’s precedent, she pointed out; other companies stage it in July and have the titular toy given to Clara as a birthday present, or moved the location to Paris, or staging it in the 21st century. Doing that, however, would be cost prohibitive: One of the reasons for the longstanding success of “Nutcracker” as performed by Appalachian Ballet is that everything is recycled, and as funding permits, new set pieces — like this year’s Mother Ginger — are added incrementally.
But more than that, such drastic changes would rob the production of the magic that makes it such an integral part of the holiday season. To imagine East Tennessee and Blount County without it is one thing, but to picture “Nutcracker” as a modern day fairy tale filled with party-goers in denim and staring at smart phones? It’s inconceivable.
“I think people would be curious, and they might come to see it, but most of them would also like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you changing a classic?’” Vaughn said. “It would be like somebody rewriting ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.’ Can you honestly rewrite that story and try to pass it off as ‘Night Before Christmas?’ No! You can’t do that!
“Just think of all of these movie remakes that are so popular these days. What does everybody do? They go see them, but then they leave saying, ‘Oh, but the original was so much better.’ And I think that would be the reaction with ‘Nutcracker.’”