BWW Reviews: Nashville Ballet Revives 'The NUTCRACKER Of Your Dreams' through 12/18

If there is an onstage moment more breathtaking, more purely theatrical, than the one during Nashville's Nutcracker when the green upstage curtain falls at the end of the exquisitely danced "Waltz of the Flowers," I simply cannot recall it nor would I want to-for it is during that brief respite from an evening filled with stunning artistry and the revelatory staging of this time-honored holiday classic that you find yourself thoroughly done in, overwhelmed by the riches of the production that once again proves Nashville Ballet the city's leading arts entity.

And if Nashville Ballet artistic director and CEO Paul Vasterling had but one work to showcase his legacy of creating the very best of dance in Music City USA, it would certainly be this exquisitely performed and gorgeously designed production that sets Tchaikovsky's iconic ballet score (performed by the Nashville Symphony under the baton of Nashville Ballet music director Paul Gambill) amid the wonders of the 1897 Tennessee Centennial Exposition.

A love letter, if you will, to both his adopted hometown and to the work that most often introduces ballet to new audiences the world over, Vasterling's Nashville's Nutcracker is given the added gravitas of historical context to augment the beauty and wonder of the ballet's physical trappings-featuring the work of scenic artist Shigeru Yaji, lighting designer Scott Leathers and costumer Campbell Baird. With Vasterling's amazingly imaginative approach to the work, brought so vividly to life by the superb cadre of company dancers performing against the opulent backdrop of the aesthetic vision provided by Messrs. Vasterling, Yaji, Leathers and Bair, it is clearly an artistic triumph for everyone concerned. But for the scores of attentive fans riveted to their seats in Andrew Jackson Hall, it is nothing short of rapturous,  a transformative theatrical experience that will inform their existence hereafter.

While the basic elements of the ballet remain virtually unchanged – a young girl's holiday dreams of a land of colorful fantasy, of feuding mice and nutcrackers brought to life as handsome princes – Vasterling delivers his own vision of the work by resetting the piece on the Middle Tennessee countryside. Those troublesome mice are battled by a band of toy soldiers led by Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory" himself, aided and abetted by native Americans and frontier soldiers. The Dewdrop Fairy and her dancing flowers and sprites cavort amid the beauty of The Parthenon Garden. And the lovely tableaux presented by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier are reimagined as scenes and characters encountered by young Clara (a role shared by Kasey Broekema and Lili Johnston) and her Uncle Drosselmeyer (Nashville Ballet favorite Eric Harris, now pursuing a career in design, returned to dance the role on opening night, proving again his invaluable contributions to the ballet's success) during an autumnal visit to the International Exposition at Centennial Park.

Inspiring and moving, Nashville's Nutcracker is the beginning of the holiday season for so many among us, providing an artistic gateway to the glories and the beauty of this most wonderful time of the year. But that opulent set, those beautiful costumes and the evocative lighting would be so much stagecraft were it not for the complete confidence and thorough commitment of the dancers of Nashville Ballet who are charged with bringing Vasterling's vision to the stage. They dance every movement as if it is fresh and new, imbuing Vasterling's choreography with their very hearts and souls, working their way ever so beautifully and gently into the heart and soul of each audience member.First presented by Nashville Ballet in 2008, this is the fourth annual staging of Nashville's Nutcracker-cementing its place in the Christmas season traditions of a city that has seen the demise of many of its holiday memories (Harvey's Department Stores' exhibitions of lighted Christmas displays in Centennial Park come to mind)-and it remains as stunning and as involving as it was that very first time. If anything, it now resonates with a sense of time and place, crafting new and heartfelt memories for generations of Nashvillians to come.

In a production filled to overflowing with stunning moments and holiday picture postcards, it is at times difficult to process all the wonders that fill the stage of Jackson Hall, but there are some that remain steadfast in your memory as you recall the cavalcade of artistry that is on display in front of you. Act One's most beautiful moment is, without doubt, the elegant Snow Scene, in which the ethereal beauty of Mollie Sansone figures prominently. Sansone, with her perfect line and extension, dances the Snow Queen with a regal carriage and earthly delight, paired with the supremely confident Brendan LaPier as her Snow King (who, despite some missteps on opening night, showed audiences the stuff of which he is made). They are joined onstage by the Snowflakes-danced by members of the corps de ballet with skill and precision-to complete an icy blue and white tableau of ineffable peace and barely contained joy.

Act Two whisks young Clara, Drosselmeyer and her Nutcracker Prince (Christopher Stuart delivers a richly nuanced performance in that role)-and their audience, of course-to the exquisitely crafted gardens of The Parthenon where, amid a panoply of color and enchantment, the lovely Dew Drop Fairy (expertly and winningly danced by the beautiful Kayla Rowser) and her accompanying fairies (including demi soloists Sarah Cordia and Katie Vasilopoulos) provide them entrée to a world of fantasy realized. Rowser's skillful artistry is given full bloom, as it were, and her pairing with Stuart-another of Nashville Ballet's veteran dancers-affords them both a starmaking vehicle that inspires and delights. Yaji's palette of colors for this sequence is at once understated and mind-blowingly gorgeous: pinks, greens and lavenders fill the stage and when that aforementioned curtain (so beautifully draped) falls to the stage floor it is a moment unlike any other. There is no doubt, nor do I exaggerate in the least: It will take your breath away and you will feel the magic of theater transport you to another world.

That bit of stage wizardry takes you to The Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the domain of the stunning Sadie Bo and the handsome Jon Upleger, who time after time have delighted and thrilled audiences in other Nashville Ballet productions. Truly, Bo is the stuff that dreams are made on and her Sugarplum fairy is as lovingly portrayed as you could ever hope for: She dances with finesse and a certain grandeur that befits the role, presented to perfection by her pairing with Upleger, who matches her artistry with his own. Their performances are nothing short of stunning, representing each dancer's years of experience and their unparallelEd Grace and beauty. Every lift, every pirouette, every stylized movement is set perfectly to the music of Tchaikovsky, capturing the flavor and the feel of every Nutcracker you've ever seen, realizing the imagination that fuels every flight of fancy.

But, truth be told, Bo and Upleger are but the icing on the cake of a confectionary rendering of the riches of Nashville Ballet's impressive stable of dancers. Vasterling's recreation of and reimaginging of the various worldly offerings in The Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy are brought to life through the performances presented in tribute to young Clara: The Spanish Dance featuring Alexandra Meister, Andrea Vierra and Christopher Butler; The Chinese Dance of Augusto Cezar and his dragon; the sensual dance of the Snake Charmer and his Lady (Judson Veach and Keenan McLaren are extraordinary); The Russian Dance of Mark Allyn Nimmo and Damian Drake; Kevin Terry and KrisSy Johnson Dodge's portrayal of the Swiss shepherd and shepherdess; and of course, the lovely Madame Bonbonniere (Casia Wilson and Cristin Young alternate) and her Bon Bons.

To say that Nashville's Nutcracker is the best we've ever seen may seem the over-the-top and the easily excused ravings of a devoTed Nashville Ballet fan. And while that may well be true-I make no bones about it: I'm consistently amazed by the work of the creative collective that make up Nashville Ballet-my enthusiasm is as unbridled as it is sincere. This is, simply, the Nutcracker of your dreams.

- Nashville's Nutcracker. Concept, story treatment and choreography by Paul Vasterling. Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Featuring the Nashville Symphony, conducted by Paul Gambill. Presented by Nashville Ballet, at Andrew Jackson Hall, Tennessee Performing Arts Center, Nashville. Through December 18. For details, visit or call (615) 782-4040 for tickets.

pictured (top) Jon Upleger and Sadie Bo, (bottom) Kayla Rowser/photos by Marianne Leach

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From This Author Jeffrey Ellis

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