Sensuous is the new “Nutcracker” by Dayton Ballet and Philharmonic
Dayton Ballet’s 75th anniversary season beckons like the cut of a diamond ballet company. Yet it adds another facet to this year’s production of “The Nutcracker,” co-choreographed, in 2003 by Karen Russo Burke, artistic director of the Dayton Ballet, and Dermot Burke, former director. The dancers will be accompanied live by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, performing the famous Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky score under the direction of Neal Gittleman.
“The Nutcracker” is a challenging spectacle to stage. It is known for its enchanting music, party scene, mice battle, snow scene and pas de deux that change quickly, yet last in the memories of children and adults. At the Dayton Ballet, the production requires months of planning and coordination of professional dancers, plus over 100 children – all outfitted in over 250 costumes by Lowell Mathwich, resident costume designer. Even with all of the thinking, planning and rehearsal that have gone into past productions, with the addition of the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra playing live, audiences may experience a lusty anticipation of each step of choreography joined to the next note of music in a score Gittleman considers “beautiful, luscious and sexy.” By the accounts of both Burke and Gittleman, the melding of live music to live dancing creates a multi-dimensional experience that engages all of the senses completely.
Both have long, diverse histories with various productions of “The Nutcracker.” Burke grew up dancing in an east coast dance school, similar to the Dayton Ballet School. Since age five, she has danced most of the roles that she now oversees and rehearses. Today, she brings special memories to her responsibility for the dancers who perform those roles now. “I remember as a Mouse we were allowed to sit by the director and watch the professionals which I thought was the coolest thing ever,” said Burke. “From that time on it’s been magical for me.”
Neal Gittleman encountered “The Nutcracker” for the first time as Associate Conductor of Syracuse Symphony where he conducted the productions performed jointly with the Connecticut Ballet. He described learning the score “on the fly” as a “baptism by fire.” Years later Gittleman and the orchestra in Marion, Ind. squeezed themselves between the front row and the stage of a high school auditorium to accompany Butler University’s production of “The Nutcracker.”
Each director understands that Nutcrackers bear the marks of their choreographers, dancers and musicians, and they remember the differences clearly. However, both are freshly attuned and responsible to the artists and audiences in Dayton. During hours of rehearsal, where Gittleman sits in the front of the dance studio marking his score as he watches Burke rehearse the dancers, they make decisions in advance on how to craft the best performance. From Burke’s standpoint, live music can show the audience choreography that is fully articulated and finished. She and Gittleman work in tandem with the dancers to adjust tempos that let them add excitement where it happens to occur and subtlety where it falls and lingers. She wants the live music to imbue the choreography with a completeness that is memorable and engaging to the audience. “I think that when we get it right, they’re going to see a fuller presentation of the steps,” Burke said.
To hear Gittleman talk about the music in relation to the mood of the tale is prescient to what audiences can expect to happen as they listen. He is a conscientious conductor who is well aware of how each performance requires him to extend his artistic leadership to dancers as well as musicians. In addition to the practicality of knowing where steps happen in the music, he is just as taken with Tchaikovsky’s magical score. After learning it over 20 years ago, Gittleman still appreciates its shifts between narrative, storytelling music and the ability to create a mood. He describes the musical changes like a conductor who cannot wait for the musicians to play, the dancers to move and audiences to take it all in. “The music segues into the snow scene and suddenly changes. It gets softer, and the harp comes in,” said Gittleman. “Even if it goes over the little kids’ heads, the grown-ups will think, ‘Oh, this is like a slow jam.’”
The live music of this season’s “The Nutcracker” gives audiences delicate shadings that reflect personality and authentic sound that cannot be reproduced in the digital compression of a recording. When you add the movement – fast movement in many instances and advanced, studied, movement in all – of seasoned, rehearsed dancers – professionals and children – the excitement can become a memorable event. Ultimately, “The Nutcracker” is a ballet that creates memories for generations. As put by Dayton Ballet dancer, Paul Gilliam, this year’s collaboration between the Dayton Ballet and Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra provides “more for the memory.”
The Dayton Performing Arts Alliance presents “The Nutcracker” Friday, Dec. 14 – Sunday, Dec. 16 and Friday, Dec. 21- Sunday, Dec. 23 at the Schuster Performing Arts Center, 2 W. Second St. Tickets range from $9 to $70. For additional ticket information and show times, call Ticket Center Stage at 937.228.3630 or visit www.daytonballet.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at ArneciaPatterson@daytoncitypaper.com