Visions Dancing in artistic heads

Dayton Ballet’s dreamy new Nutcracker comes to life

By: Arnecia Patterson

Photo: [l to r] Halliet Slack, Jammie Walker, Nathaly Priesto and Paul Gilliam rehearse for the alternating roles of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier in the new Dayton Ballet Prodcution of The Nutcracker

 Ballet’s elements of beauty are recognizable to varied cultures and age groups. Its slender, pliable sylphs glide across an embellished stage and stop for the occasional, air-defying balance, en pointe, while their cavaliers and princes, whose tights show their muscular physiques, support them. Ballet has universal appeal. The prince might carry his beloved, sometimes with one hand – his strength is on display – or turn quickly, on the ground or in the air, or leap high in a pattern around the stage to booming music that underscores his bravura. These feats take numerous hours in the gym for mere mortals.Ballet’s tendency to defy mortality with youthful, fit beauty is a feature that attracts people who know little about concert dance. The Nutcracker is one of the most beloved dances in ballet’s canon, in part for its storyline focused on the immortality of dreams. Every December, in the days leading up to Christmas, families make an event of seeing it and this year audiences have a new one to see. Dayton Ballet’s premier of a new version of The Nutcracker merges soft dreaminess with practical execution to create the area’s most popular concert dance spectacle. Its saturated narrative, diverse choreography and transformative dream is crafted from a collaboration comprised of Artistic Director Karen Russo Burke, Resident Costume Designer Lowell Mathwich, Set Designer Ray Zupp and Dayton Philharmonic Music Director Neal Gittleman.

Dance history

Gathered in her dancer’s body, choreographer Karen Russo Burke has a storehouse of history with The Nutcracker much more immediate than the 1840s time period she has chosen as the setting for the ballet. Russo Burke, like many of the 96 children in this year’s production, started young, at age five, dancing in an East Coast Nutcracker where she grew up.

“I was a mouse,” said Russo Burke. “I grew up through snow and corps and all the way to Sugar Plum. This is like an accumulation of my whole life with The Nutcracker.”

With a lifetime of experience to reference, Russo Burke brings her own sensibilities to her choreography and influences every aspect of the premier’s design. She is adhering to the traditional storyline more closely – a change from the Dayton setting of the last Nutcracker and its focus on local characters like Virginia Kettering and the Schwarz sisters. For his magician’s sleight of hand and ability to delight curious children at the holiday party, the Drosselmeyer returns as beloved by the signature child characters, Clara and Fritz. In Russo Burke’s version, he has no sinister quality. He is Clara’s trusted usher into The Land of the Sweets, where desserts grow and their colors dance.

“He’s magical,” she said. “I had a hard time thinking children would be friendly with someone who was sinister. They would read that energy really well.”

Russo Burke wants the story to be enjoyable to a range of audience members. The Nutcracker has an historical family appeal. Additionally, she is well aware the second act’s dream must be connected to the first act’s reality.

“It’s about making the story cohesive, easy for people to enjoy, whether they’re 5, 25, 45, or older—any age,” said Russo Burke. “That’s the opportunity that I’m trying to seize. How do you formulate a dream that makes sense? Dreams never make sense. They’re always crazy.”

In response, she and the artistic collaborators, Mathwich and Zupp, fill the second act with colorful set and costume references to the ballet’s first act. Even though the story remains traditional, every visual element of this year’s production is different than the year before.

No matter how the details of The Nutcracker story change, a constant is the music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, played live for all performances by the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Neal Gittleman, its music director. According to Russo Burke, the musical passages that accompany the “Waltz of the Flowers” and “Snow Scene” are opportunities for pure ballet corps dancing. These moments, along with the flexibility of the balance of the score, are why she has loved the music her entire life. “It’s beautiful music,” she said. “When I hear it in November and December, it’s second nature.”

Music, not words

In the dance world, eight consecutive performances can be a repetitive drudgery that taxes a dancer’s body, yet the addition of live music provides unpredictability. It can push dancers, musicians and audiences beyond sameness.

“You aim for consistency so the dancers can rely on the support from the orchestra, but every show is a little bit different,” said Neal Gittleman, the orchestra’s conductor.

After occupying the pit of Dayton Ballet’s The Nutcracker last year, he anticipates the variables of accompanying dance and knows that they heighten a musician’s awareness during performance, so he undertakes additional rehearsal hours to sit in on the rehearsals in the dance studio.

Once Russo Burke finished setting the choreography, Gittleman attended rehearsal to watch the dancers and mark his score with visual cues that he uses while conducting. The process helps him and the musicians to voice the emotional dimension of the storyline in addition to supporting the choreography. Their rendition of the score can amplify characters who move and gesture, without speaking and provide an uptick to their movement voices. While creating an inner life of dance characterization – the artistry of dance accompaniment – there are more mundane aspects of conducting musicians – stops, starts, tempo, entries.

“It’s never the same game you’re playing with each performance,” said Gittleman. “You have a fabulous text with Tchaikovsky, so you go into your zone and respond to whatever the magic is on a given day. That’s what a performer does.”

Before choreography, there was shopping

Back in January 2013, Lowell Mathwich knew that the new Nutcracker – scheduled for eleven months later – would not have white snowflakes, so he bought icy blue fabric and this year’s flakes took their unique shapes. Mathwich has to pull a number of threads together to build a costume image for The Nutcracker. Costume designers live by a tactile code of color, durability and construction, but those components are preceded by connected ideas worn well by the costumes.

“There has to be some logic for me, even if it isn’t recognized right away by audiences,” said Mathwich. This accounts for the plaid pants and brocade vests worn by the fathers at the party in the first act. “The time period dictates the silhouette and the fabrics you choose. There is a lot of plaid in the first act, because that was a popular fabric in the 1840s. I wanted to go with something really pretty. Not a flashy party, but a warm, Christmas Eve, dessert party with your neighbors and friends.”

The deep reds and blues with browns create a warm color palette contrasted against the intense color of the second act when the desserts begin to dance. The combination of a party scene, dancing desserts, fighting rats, snowflakes and flowers makes Mathwich wish he had started shopping a full year earlier than he did for the large varieties and quantities of material it took to outfit The Nutcracker.

Tulle is a mainstay fabric used to costume ballet dancers – it goes under skirts to add the fullness and shape that is broadly associated with classical dance. The range and quantity of fabric quickly multiplies with a ballet as large as The Nutcracker.

According to Mathwich, “I bought 50 yards of pink moiré, because we have 14 pages of different shapes and sizes, so we had to make 20 page costumes.” Sometimes the volume of costumes requires a skilled eye to find a fabric that has durability and comes in enough colors to clothe a number of characters, like the dupioni silk substitute Mathwich found from a N.Y. seller who he has patronized for years.

“I bought it in brown, green, red, white and off-white. It has beautiful luster and color and it’s almost indestructible,” claimed Mathwich.  Beneath all of the color and luster caught by the lights, practicality is also a consideration, especially in a ballet with eight performances. For the party scene, the women’s dresses require double-ruffled petticoats for authenticity. After not being able to find the nylon organdy he had used under gowns for years, Mathwich had to buy eight bolts of bridal crinoline that has to be unbuttoned from the skirts and washed down. He is not sure it can withstand cleaning any other way.

The second act of The Nutcracker promises to be a costume feast for the eyes as the nationality dances get the sweet treatment: Russian dance mimics ribbon candy and Arabian has turned into Turkish Delight. Sugar candy violets from the cake, gingerbread cookies and chocolate with blood orange in electric colors provide sharp contrasts to the warmth of the first act. Mathwich explained, “The idea was to go back and focus on the sweets, so I started from there and worked back to see how I could tie the two acts together.”

Framing the picture

Ray Zupp wants audiences to remember their journeys into dreamland after seeing Dayton Ballet’s The Nutcracker this season, so he looked at footage of numerous productions and tapped into his background in cinema and theatre. During the course of his research, he noticed that most productions of The Nutcracker had a growing Christmas tree, but the rest of the set remained at human scale. According to Zupp, his set design uses this element as a point of departure to create a large-scale dream scene for Dayton audiences that may be one of the more unusual and creative aspects of the ballet.

“When I started this with Karen, I noticed that in most Nutcracker ballets the tree would grow but the house would always stay in proportion,” Zupp explained. With that in mind, Zupp proceeded to design a set in which the whole house grows. Audiences can use the door as a reference. “It starts as a regular height door and grows to about 28 feet.”

According to Zupp, he wanted to design a set for The Nutcracker that used visual foreshadowing in the transition from reality to fantasy. The normalcy of a simple dessert party becomes a dance fantasy in the Land of Sweets, but there will be subtle references to mark the way and make the connection. He hopes that audiences notice and follow them to share Clara’s experiences in the dream.

“In the second act, Clara sees things from home in her dream,” said Zupp. “There is this giant pudding cake that topples over and has a nice spiral.” He described the architectural spirals of the first act as whimsical and “slightly off” in the dream. “We have these big mincemeat pies coming up the side and there are spirals there.” He treats the spirals with a quirky motif so audiences can experience a balance of the strange and wonderful like the general effect of a dream. “For me, it’s magic. I want people to walk away with that whole magic of Christmas feeling. I want them to be ready to go on this magical journey and have fun.”

The magic of the Christmas season is a celebration in the dance world. For the Dayton Ballet, the artistic staff and its collaborators are focused on making dreams come true for area families by creating a memory of their visions dancing in the heads of all who attend the performance.


The Dayton Ballet presents The Nutcracker Friday, Dec. 13 and 20 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 14 and 21 at 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 15 and 22 at 2:30 p.m. at Schuster Performing Arts Center. Tickets range from $15 to $70. To purchase tickets or more information, please call Ticket Center Stage at 937. 228.3630 or visit at


Reach DCP freelance writer Arnecia Patterson at


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Arnecia Patterson has an infinite capacity to view concert dance. She found her former career as dance executive, funder, and consultant extremely satisfying—and finds writing about dance equally rewarding. Reach DCP Resident Dance Critic Arnecia Patterson at

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