River Cities' Reader
by Mike Schultz
On December 12 and 13, area audiences will have the opportunity to attend two separate productions of composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker
: one performed by the professional dancers of Ballet Quad Cities (plus a few local performers), one performed by the student performers of RiverPointBallet (plus a professional dancer). And Ballet Quad Cities' Executive Director Joedy Cook is up-front about a large part of the holiday favorite's appeal: "For all ballet companies, Nutcracker
is what really helps pay their bills. Nutcracker
is the one ballet that you can count on to get an audience."
Yet as Cook well knows, that's not the reason that audiences themselves flock to The Nutcracker year after year. "It's truly the most recognizable music in the world," she says, "and that's because it's magical. And The Nutcracker itself is magical. It's magic, it's dreamy ... it's 'Calgon! Take me away!'"
A dated reference, sure, but an entirely accurate one, as The Nutcracker's tale of a little girl named Clara and her wondrous adventures one Christmas Eve has now been delighting and enchanting audiences for more than 100 years. Most of us have seen it, many of us (including yours truly) have been in it, and yet this ballet continues to be a beloved holiday tradition - one that, as you'll see below, hasn't lost its appeal even for longtime professional dancers.
From Mouse to Maestro: Artistic Director Courtney Lyon Re-Thinks a Classic for Ballet Quad Cities
When asked if she remembers the first production of The Nutcracker that she ever saw, Ballet Quad Cities' Artistic Director Courtney Lyon laughs and says, "Oh, I remember. I remember. Because it's what made me want to become a professional dancer.
"I was five or six," she says, "and my parents took me and my sisters to see a performance of The Nutcracker in St. Louis. And the production was kind of like the ones we do, with professional dancers and then some area children who have the opportunity to be part of it. So I saw students up there not much older than me, and I could, like, taste it. It was like it was meant for me. I wanted to be a mouse in the battle scene.
"I didn't care about the women in the tutus or the sparkly crowns," Lyon continues. "I mean, at that age, I knew that the Sugar Plum Fairy was far beyond me. But I saw something I could do. I could be that mouse. And I could be a good mouse. So I trained for a couple years, and then when I was eight or nine, that was my first role in The Nutcracker. I got to be a mouse."
Currently, Lyon finds herself fulfilling another Nutcracker dream, serving as co-choreographer (with company member Erica Attwood) for Ballet Quad Cities' latest incarnation of Tchaikovsky's holiday favorite. Yet while The Nutcracker is an annual tradition for the professional dance company - one that she's participated in for the past 10 seasons - Lyon says she's "overjoyed" to be taking on the challenge of co-choreographing, "because even though we all know the general story, there are so many different ways to tell the story."
In her initial discussions with Atwood, Lyon says, "the very first thing that we did was decide on what version of the story to do. Because there's an original version, but there are lots of different, small changes that can be made, and a lot of it has to do with how many dancers you have, how many men versus how many women, and what the dancers look like."
Given the makeup of the current Ballet Quad Cities company, Lyon says, "We chose a version where we have Clara being an older company dancer rather than a child - she's now a 16-year-old - and she becomes
the Sugar Plum Fairy. And from there, we went all the way through from the party scene to the end of the ballet, and had to decide, 'What is Clara's motivation?' We had to figure out the parts of the story that needed to make sense
"Like, she's a 16-year-old that was just given a doll," Lyon continues. "Why is that such a big deal? Why does she care about it when she was already given all these other wonderful gifts - oranges, and candy, and all these special things for the time period? And how do we want the audience to understand all this? Is it real? Is it all a magical dream?
"A lot of choreography is just the storytelling, and once we decided on the story, the choreography just came naturally after that. You just have to ask, 'With my body, how do I tell the story?'"
While much of The Nutcracker's dancing is character-based, it's the ballet's second act, says Lyon, that allows for the most choreographic imagination.
"Act II has the Russian dance, and the Arabian dance, and the Spanish dance," she says, "and with all those divertissements, there's a million ways to do them. And there are so many great characters in it that it can be really fun as a dancer - if you do a variety of those parts, you really get to spread your wings."
Not all of Act II, says Lyon, required tinkering. "One thing that we kept very traditional is the Grand Pas de Deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince. The version we're doing is one that most dancers know, although probably not most audience members, unless they're very educated in ballet. It's a version that you see in most Nutcrackers around the world."
But Lyon says that she and Attwood "have been having so much fun" inventing new dances for other segments in the ballet's second act. "In one, I have five umbrella dancers, two Chinese-ribbon dancers, and a male lead dancer who's doing movement inspired by Chinese kung fu, that I turned into more modern-dance choreography."
Adding the choreography to the production's new scenic drop, the new gray marley floor (allowing for changes in the traditional lighting palette), and new costumes designed by Adele Forest, Lyon is confident that this year's Nutcracker will give audiences a happily unfamiliar take on familiar material - even though, as she says with a laugh, "I don't think we've re-invented it or anything. I mean, it's The Nutcracker. It works."
And despite their own familiarity with Tchaikovsky's tale, Lyon believes that it continues to work for Ballet Quad Cities' company members. "I would guess that for most of the dancers in this studio," she says, "Nutcracker's why they started dancing. So you know, even though it might seem repetitious to do it year after year - 'I already know the music, I already know the story' - I think it probably stirs up something in all the dancers. Memories of childhood."
Ballet Quad Cities' The Nutcracker will be performed at Davenport's Adler Theatre (136 East Third Street) on Saturday, December 12, at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and on Sunday, December 13, at 2 p.m. Tickets are $12 to $27, and can be reserved by calling (800)745-3000.
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