A! Magazine for the Arts

Samson, the German Shepherd, joins "The Nutcracker" cast.

Samson, the German Shepherd, joins "The Nutcracker" cast.

Dancers, Dogs, and a Little Christmas Magic highlight 'The Nutcracker' by Bristol Ballet

November 26, 2019

“The Nutcracker” has been a popular holiday tradition in the United States since the 1950s, when George Balanchine recreated the classical ballet for the New York City Ballet. For decades this ballet is the one “go-to” for ballet lovers and newcomers to the art alike, and can be a company’s biggest production of the season. How does a company keep people coming to this ballet year after year? Little changes in choreography, changing casts and refreshing costumes are the most likely.

Bristol Ballet first produced this ballet in 1965, and with only a few exceptions, has been educating and entertaining citizens in the area ever since. This year sees some exciting plans: refreshed Snow costumes, dogs in the cast, a new Drosselmeyer, and some local flavor. Plus, there will be an additional school performance, free to students and qualifying chaperones, thanks to season and school performance sponsor, Knoxville TVA Employee Credit Union.

Bristol Ballet has offered the school performances at no cost for the last six years and has always had to turn people away when the theater filled and there were no more seats. Knoxville TVA Employee Credit Union agreed to sponsor an additional school performance this year. At present, 1,200 students have reservations to the school performances on Dec. 12 and 13. Bristol Ballet is “thrilled” to be able to accommodate twice the number of students this year.

For the second year, Bristol Ballet is partnering with the Sullivan County Animal Shelter to bring “Pupcracker” to Bristol. Two local dogs, Samson and Ryder, will be in the production as gifts to the children in the Party Scene and as sheep in the Marzipan Shepherdess divertissement. Samson and Ryder are pets to two local residents, and are seasoned Nutcracker cast members.

All the other cast members love having the dogs around, and they’ve become right at home in the studio and the theater. Samson, a solid black German Shepherd, loves balls, and has a free for all when he visits the studio for rehearsals, playing with fit balls, yoga balls and getting lots of pats from the dancers. Ryder, a golden doodle, is always happy and lifts the spirits of the cast.

As part of the partnership with the animal shelter, several dogs from the shelter will be in the lobby of the Paramount for the matinee on Saturday, Dec. 14, available for adoption.

The rest of the cast consists of 13 company dancers, 22 students from the Bristol Ballet school, six community members, three of Bristol Ballet’s teachers, and three guest artists from New York City. Erin Ginn, a former Kingsport native now dancing professionally in New York, returns as the Sugar Plum Fairy for the eighth year. Jonatan Lujan makes his debut Bristol Ballet performance as the Nutcracker and Cavalier to the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Joel Levy returns after a four-year absence, as the Snow Cavalier and Arabian divertissement.

“We’ve always had such good experiences with our guest artists”, said Michele Plescia, artistic director. “They have always been gracious and easy to work with. This is a really good exposure for our dancers - to see professionals at work and to learn from them while they’re here.”

For this year, one of Bristol Ballet’s company members will be performing two roles that are usually performed by a professional guest artist. Olivia Millwood, an 18-year-old high school senior, will have that honor. “Her technique and artistry have blossomed in the last several years, thanks to her wonderful teachers at Bristol Ballet and several years at summer intensives (including Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts last July). This will be an opportunity for us to show off our local talent and for her to grow in her performing endeavors. Part of the challenge will be to learn and rehearse with her partner only eight days from the performances, as he is one of the guest artists who will be coming in close to show time,” Plescia says.

Other company members are cast in different roles this year as well. “We like to keep everyone renewed and excited about their roles, and give them new challenges each year,” said Plescia. Another high school senior, Collin White, revives her role as Clara, which she performed four years ago. “Now, as a young lady with more maturity and more developed technique, she will bring greater acting and more dancing to the role, which will give the production a new level of professionalism. While she’s really happy to be dancing the role of Clara, she’s a bit sad that this will be her final season with Bristol Ballet, as she’s going away to school next fall,” Plescia says.

“Having three instructors in the Party Scene has allowed us to give a wonderful look of elegance and stature to the show - and we’ve had fun putting together a little dance number for the three of us, with shades of a well-known variation from another ballet - just for fun,” said Moira Frazier, managing director for the ballet. Frazier, Beth Barnette, and Amanda Hairston are lending their talents to the production, including a little partnering with their on-stage husbands.

Further setting this production apart from others is the local flavor that has begun to be infused into the story. Since Bristol is known as the Birthplace of Country Music, there are some subtle tributes to the 1927 Bristol Sessions in the production. Gifts of fiddles, banjos and soft, country dolls, and an appearance from Mother Maybelle Carter and the Carter Sisters (in place of Mother Ginger and her Pollichinelles) were introduced last year. Plans to expand those historical influences are in the works for future years.

Continuing with the changes for this year, there will be one digital moving backdrop in addition to two traditional canvas drops. Plescia explains: “I started experimenting with digitals two years ago. So far the results have been wonderful, so I’m using them whenever I can. I couldn’t do it without the help of Beth Stockner, a graphic artist, board member, and parent of three dancers at Bristol Ballet. She works intently to make sure the video runs exactly the length of time that is needed, and plays with the timing so that things change with the music. The result is wonderful, and I feel that we’re staying in tune with the changing times in theater productions as a whole.”

The changes, blended with the tradition that is “The Nutcracker” will make for another season of enjoyment and good cheer. Frazier says, “We hope everyone will come and see our updated version, and be inspired throughout the holiday season.”

Performances will be at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee. Public performances are Dec. 13 at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 14 at noon and 7:30 p.m. Visit www.paramountbristol.org for public show tickets or email mfrazier@bristolballet.org for school show tickets.