Nashville Ballet unveils new ‘Nutcracker’

Thursday, December 11, 2008 at 1:01am
After presenting the same production for nearly 20 years, the Nashville Ballet will unveil Friday their re-imagined, $1.2 million ‘Nutcracker’ which incorporates new costumes and historical figures.

Nashville Ballet Artistic Director Paul Vasterling is known internationally for his dramatic choreography and tremendous artistry. But in the process of creating his brand-new Nutcracker, which premieres at Tennessee Performing Arts Center on Friday night, he’s also become something of a local historian.

“Yes, I’ve learned quite a bit about Nashville over the last couple of years,” he said with a laugh. “It’s been such an amazing journey. I’ve been working on this project for three years, and it’s been so exciting to see everything come together in the last few weeks.”

The “project,” of course, is Vasterling’s $1.2 million re-imagining of Tchaikovsky’s beloved holiday classic, which tells the story of a young girl named Clara who dreams of a Nutcracker Prince. The new piece replaces an older version of Nashville Ballet’s Nutcracker, which delighted local audiences for almost 20 years.

“Our old Nutcracker was created by my predecessor, and I actually was in that original production,” Vasterling said. “I lived and breathed it for 18 years, but it was getting old and worn. We were at a point where we either had to rebuild it or rethink it. I started looking through local history books at the library and found these wonderful photos from the Tennessee Exposition in 1897. I was struck by images of the Vanity Fair, or midway, which featured fantastic exhibits from all over the world. And I thought ‘this is it — this is where Clara’s dream intersects with Nashville’s history.’”

From there, Vasterling conceived a grand new production featuring innovative choreography, elaborate sets and colorful costumes designed by a nationally recognized team. The piece is set in Nashville at the time of the 1897 Exposition and incorporates a number of easily recognizable landmarks and historic figures. For example, Clara’s bedroom is based on the interior of the Belle Meade Mansion. Vasterling has young Clara visiting the Exposition in Act 1, with all of these exotic sights and sounds coming back to her as part of Act 2’s magical dream sequence.

“I found that without changing the basic story, we could overlay this wonderful moment in Nashville history,” he said. “It felt real, very truthful. After all, Tchaikovsky wrote Nutcracker in 1892, so the period really fits. Once I found those pictures of the Exposition, I knew this was how I wanted to proceed.”

Vasterling relates the process to completing a “big, beautiful puzzle,” adding that most of the pieces have fallen into place just in the last few weeks.

“It’s so exciting for me,” he said. “I’m like a kid on Christmas. Each day something new comes out of the shop, and everyone gets to see what I’ve been talking about all these months. We’ve been in the studio working on choreography since September, using tape marks to indicate things like the staircase or a tree. So to see the set and costumes is amazing. It’s very rewarding for me.”

But Vasterling is quick to share the credit with his technical team, which includes scene design by Shigeru Yaji, costume design by Campbell Baird, and lighting by resident designer Scott Leathers.

“We’re very fortunate to have such great designers,” he said. “I had worked with Yaji in California and knew he would help us think outside the box. And I had seen Campbell’s work with the Oregon Ballet Theatre in Portland, so I took a chance and called. He was actually very excited about the idea of building a new Nutcracker. There are more than 180 costumes, with all the period pieces, animal head pieces, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Snow Queen. We start out using sepia tones, but by the time we close the colors are so brilliant — it’s just lovely.”

Lovely, but expensive. Andrea Dillenburg, executive director for Nashville Ballet, sees the $1.2 million costs as a smart investment.

Nutcracker represents the core piece of the Ballet’s annual earned income,” she said. “It’s a very popular show, with many families coming to see it year after year. So we felt confident that the investment would pay off. Ticket sales are going really well, and the co-chairs of our capital campaign, Suann Davis and Annette Eskind, have done a fabulous job — we are so thankful to them.”

Dillenburg also notes that much of the money spent on the huge production was spent locally.

“It was important to us that we build the show right here in Nashville,” she said. “All of the sets and the vast majority of the costumes were created here, so I think there’s a real sense of ownership and pride.”

All opening night ticket holders will enjoy a pre-performance Centennial Christmas Victorian festival, set along Sixth Avenue North. Designed to take visitors back to Nashville as it might have appeared on a December night in 1897, the streetscape will include an elaborate holiday snow scene, carolers and more.

“It’s going to be an incredible evening,” Vasterling said. “This is certainly the biggest production we’ve ever done, and people won’t want to miss it. Launching a brand-new Nutcracker doesn’t happen very often — maybe every 15 to 20 years — so we’re going to do it up right.”

What: Nutcracker

When: 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 19-21

Where: TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall, 505 Deaderick St.

Cost: $21.50-$72.50 (Opening Night tickets are $31.50-$82.50)

Info: Tickets available by calling Ticketmaster at 255-ARTS (2787), online at or, in person at the TPAC Box Office (downtown or at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in The Mall at Green Hills).

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