For the past decade, Music City has embraced Nashville Ballet Artistic Director and CEO Paul Vasterling’s unique vision of the beloved holiday classic, The Nutcracker, known simply as Nashville’s Nutcracker for its clever references to Nashville’s historic Centennial celebration of the late 1800s, as well as Vasterling’s clever incorporation of well-known Nashville landmarks. For the past few weeks multiple generations of ballet patrons have gathered at TPAC’s Jackson Hall for what has become a true local Christmas tradition. With just a handful of performances remaining now through Saturday, December 23, I thought it would be fun to chat with Vasterling, as well as Billy Ditty, the company’s costume shop manager and three of Nashville Ballet’s company members, Sarah Cordia, Gerald Watson and Daniella Zlatarev about the seasonal favorite, their part in creating the magic and some personal holiday traditions for my latest Rapid Fire 20 Q.
RAPID FIRE 20 Q with members of Nashville Ballet’s Nashville Nutcracker
RAPID FIRE WITH NASHVILLE BALLET ARTISTIC DIRECTOR & CEO, PAUL VASTERLING
JONATHAN PINKERTON: This year marks the 10th anniversary of Nashville’s Nutcracker. When you debuted the piece 10 years ago, did you ever think it would become such a beloved Nashville tradition?
PAUL VASTERLING: I certainly hoped it would, but any time you change something traditional there’s a risk that follows. But, you know, there really is no traditional Nutcracker—there are certain aspects in every production that make it unique. Over the past decade, the city has made Nashville’s Nutcracker its holiday tradition—and that’s a privilege that’s far exceeded what I could have imagined.
JP: For your take on the classic, you decided to set the action around the turn of the century—in particular—Nashville’s Centennial Exposition in 1897. What was it about that timeframe that drew you to incorporating it into the show?
PAUL VASTERLING: The Centennial Exposition was a magical time in our city’s history that put Nashville on the map. Millions of people came through our then-tiny city for the six-month celebration that spotlighted the state’s achievements and history. The colorful, vibrant photos of the Exposition were a jumping off point for me. I liked the idea of Drosselmeyer introducing art into Clara’s life at the Exposition, which ultimately precipitates her holiday dream.
JP: When I attended the final dress rehearsal, it suddenly struck me that with a piece that has been presented by Nashville Ballet for a full decade, the audience could potentially span three generations. Heck, I had my sister-in-law and my grand-nieces (her granddaughters) with me that night. As a creative visionary, how gratifying is it to present a show that has such broad appeal, regardless of age?
PAUL VASTERLING: Part of the reason Nashville’s Nutcracker is so special is that there is a broad appeal that spans generations. It’s not often that a piece of work can do that. At its core, Nashville’s Nutcracker explores themes of home, tradition and imagination—ideas that resonate regardless of age. It’s easy to understand why children are so drawn to the sheer enchantment of the production. But for adults, in particular, it sparks beautifully nostalgic memories of youth and a more innocent time in our lives.
JP: Through Nashville’s Nutcracker, you’ve helped hundreds of area families create a special holiday tradition, so I gotta know….aside from Nashville’s Nutcracker, what’s one of your personal favorite holiday traditions?
PAUL VASTERLING: I’d have to say Christmas decorating. You might be surprised to know that I have about 50 different versions of Nutcrackers all over my home. I collected many of those throughout the ‘90s when I was performing as Drosselmeyer in Nashville Ballet’s The Nutcracker for almost a decade. My favorite is probably a life-sized Nutcracker signed by the original cast of Nashville’s Nutcracker.
RAPID FIRE WITH NASHVILLE BALLET COSTUME SHOP MANAGER, BILLY DITTY
JP: Exactly how many costumes are there in Nashville’s Nutcracker?
BILLY DITTY: There are approximately 186 costumes and 1,294 individual pieces per performance. These numbers don’t even include the doubles and triples we have of many of the costumes to accommodate the show’s needs! It takes nine wardrobe professionals to run the show minimum.
JP: Costumes for the show were designed by Campbell Baird. If you could only use only a few words to describe his vision for Nashville’s Nutcracker, what would it be?
BILLY DITTY: Anyone that knows me also knows that I believe “less is not always more.” So here goes: Lush Victorian Storybook Fantasy.
JP: Can we just talk about costumes for Madame Bonbonniere and her dancing Bon Bons?
BILLY DITTY: In our version of The Nutcracker, Clara sees many exotic sights at the Centennial Exposition in 1897. She encounters a French lady with a tray of chocolate bon bons. Later, during Clara’s dream, the French lady reappears in an oversized dreamlike way! This time, instead of sharing chocolate bon bons, she shares her polka-dotted dancing children to perform for Clara. Madame Bon Bon (as we call her) has a bigger than life Marie Antoinette/clown/drag queen essence. So, to make her bigger than life, she is lifted off the ground by a giant rolling framework of a dress. How else could you fit eight clowns under her skirt? The dancer wears a long loose bodice belted at the waist to create a peplum that hangs over the framework dress to blend the two together in one dreamlike piece of comedy.
JP: They say never to work with children or animals…with Nashville’s Nutcracker, you work with both…OK, so technically the animals are in the form of dancing bear costumes and instances like ballerinas dancing the role of a charmed snake, but I digress. What’s the most fun aspect of working with the dozens of kids who dance the roles of the baby mice, Native Americans and toy soldiers?
BILLY DITTY: The most fun aspect dealing with the kids is two-fold: The hilarious things they reveal to us and the honest glee they show when they try on their costumes for the first time. They really do feel the emotion of being a part of something bigger than their normal lives. It’s the same honest glee I still feel when I see Clara’s Christmas tree transform into a sparkling giant or when the Sugar Plum Fairy’s signature music plays quietly.
RAPID FIRE WITH NASHVILLE BALLET COMPANY MEMBER, SARAH CORDIA
JP: Do you have a favorite among the roles you’re dancing in this year’s Nashville’s Nutcracker?
SARAH CORDIA: My favorite role I’m dancing this year is the Sugar Plum Fairy. The music for the Sugar Plum pas de deux is my favorite music in the ballet, and I love how it progresses choreographically. I also love getting to interact directly with Clara. This year all four of the Claras are students of mine in the School of Nashville Ballet, so it’s been very special.
JP: When I attended the final dress rehearsal, I was struck by the subtle differences in movement that differentiate characters like the Snow Queen from, say, the Cuban Ambassador’s Wife. What goes into developing the different character movements?
SARAH CORDIA: The Snow Queen and the Cuban Ambassador’s Wife are very different characters. The Cuban Ambassador’s Wife is directed to be like Sofia Vergara from Modern Family, the Latin life of the party, while the Snow Queen is a queen. She is royal, regal and elegant. The choreography for each character is obviously very different, but when you embody each character, you naturally approach the steps differently. I don’t think of developing movements as much as I think about developing a person.
JP: The Snow Scene at the end of Act I is one of the most beautiful things I think I’ve ever seen onstage. As the Snow Queen, you were paired that night with Nicolas Scheuer as the Snow King. What’s he like as a dance partner?
SARAH CORDIA: Nicolas is a fantastic dance partner in every way. I never have to worry about a lift or a turn when I am dancing with him because he does whatever it takes to make it happen every time. He is also very encouraging. If I am ever feeling nervous, he is great at making me feel confident and at ease. We make each other calm.
JP: You’ve been with a member of the company since 2010. What’s the most gratifying thing about being part of Nashville Ballet?
SARAH CORDIA: I’ve been lucky enough to watch the company grow and thrive in my eight years here. Everything Nashville Ballet does is in an effort to serve the community and serve the art form with integrity. This passion for service never stops and is what inspires each branch of the organization. Being a female ballet dancer is competitive, and I feel very grateful that I’m dancing for a company that takes such good care of its people and its community.
RAPID FIRE WITH NASHVILLE BALLET COMPANY MEMBER, GERALD WATSON
JP: When I was told you were among my interview subjects for this Rapid Fire, I was thrilled, having noted in my review of The Sleeping Beauty that, among Aurora’s suitors, I’d have picked you. That said, in Nashville’s Nutcracker, among the multitude of roles you’re performing is the Nutcracker himself. What’s your favorite aspect of dancing that particular role?
GERALD WATSON: My favorite part of being the Nutcracker is being one person the entire show. The Nutcracker, Drosselmeyer and Clara are the only three dancers who play the same role from the ballet’s start to finish. It’s a lot of fun, for example, being Mouse King in Act I and then transitioning into a role like Chinese in Act II in 30 minutes. But the calm that comes with one character is incomparable.
JP: I have another confession. Until last week’s final dress rehearsal, I’d never seen The Nutcracker, not even on PBS. When was your first introduction to the piece?
GERALD WATSON: When I was 12, I did a community holiday show back home called the Chocolate Nutcracker. It was a multicultural approach to the traditional Nutcracker that used Cuban, African, hip hop, jazz, contemporary, liturgical dance and ballet to tell this timeless story to an eclectic audience. It was the best introduction I could have had, and it was also my first time ever dancing.
JP: Academy of Ballet Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida and the famed Boston Conservatory are among the places you studied your craft. Florida winters are breezy but sunny while New England winters provide some of the most beautiful snow-covered wonderlands in the country. Be honest. Do you prefer a snowy Christmas, or a more non-traditional sunny Santa season?
GERLAD WATSON: I go swimming every New Year back home. I’ll never trade in my Florida Christmases, but part of the reason I wanted to attend school in Boston was to experience season changes. I knew it would be a part of my professional dance life. Floridians don’t transition seasons very well. I know from experience.
JP: In Act II, you’re also dancing the role of the Snake Charmer. The night I attended Nashville’s Nutcracker, you were charming the charming Daniella Zlatarev as the Snake Lady. I’m about to chat with Daniella, and I’m gonna ask her about you, so it’s only fair you get the first word. How much fun is she as a dance partner?
GERLAD WATSON: I love dancing with Daniella. We met in 2007 when we were young students at a summer program. We’ve crossed paths a lot over the years and continued to grow as artists. Now that we’re in the same place, it is a privilege to be side-by-side with her as a dancer and friend. We support and trust each other so much because we know it wouldn’t be possible without the other.
RAPID FIRE WITH NASHVILLE BALLET COMPANY MEMBER, DANIELLA ZLATAREV
JP: I just spoke with Gerald Watson and asked him about dancing with you as Snake Lady to his Snake Charmer, so it’s your turn. What’s Gerald like as a partner?
DANIELLA ZLATAREV: I absolutely love partnering with Gerald! We’ve known each other since the summer of 2007 when we were both attending the summer intensive at Ballet Met Columbus, so I feel especially comfortable with him (it’s also amazing we’ve ended up in the same company!). As a partner, Gerald is exceptional to work with. He is chivalrous and attentive, and he does everything in his power to make me feel comfortable and beautiful. If something isn’t working well, we work on it until it does. And to top this all off, I have so much fun dancing with him. He has an incredible personality and is so supportive. I truly could not say better things about Gerald and I am so grateful for his friendship and our dancing partnership.
JP: Among your other roles during the run of Nashville’s Nutcracker, you’re also Dew Drop Fairy, Snow Queen and several more. How much rehearsal time goes into learning each role?
DANIELLA ZLATAREV: It varies! Snow Queen is a new role for me this year, so I have been having an hour of rehearsal nearly every day for about three weeks. Gerald and I also rehearsed Dew Drop nearly every day. For some of the shorter divertissements, like Spanish, Arabian and Swiss, we will rehearse a few times a week in groups. Some of these dances are a little over a minute to three minutes, and the choreography isn’t as complex and technically challenging, so they take less time to clean.
JP: What the biggest misconception about being a ballerina?
DANIELLA ZLATAREV: It is a real, full-time, paid job with benefits. When I tell someone I’m a ballet dancer, the follow-up question is often, “So what do you do for a living?” Our typical rehearsal schedule is Monday – Friday, 9 a.m. – 6 p.m. (and noon – 10 p.m. when we’re in the theatre!). Our contract is about 38 weeks a year and we have health insurance. Also, we eat.
JP: Nashville’s Nutcracker is such a magical experience, creating memories for audiences for 10 years. What’s your favorite Christmas memory from your childhood?
DANIELLA ZLATAREV: This is a little cliché, but when I was about 9 years old, a woman who took ballet classes at my studio brought in a little Border Collie puppy that she found. This was all in the midst of Nutcracker rehearsals, and I had been begging my parents to get a dog for years. But they agreed and we took her home. The fact that she was a Christmas AND a ballet puppy made her extra special. My grandfather named her Jackie after Jackie O!
With that, my time with members of Nashville Ballet came to a close. Nashville’s Nutcracker, too will soon come to a close with just a handful of fairy-dusted, candy-coated, snow-flurry-filled performances thru Saturday, December 23. From Thursday, December 21-Saturday, December 23, Nashville’s Nutcracker will perform two shows daily. First there’s a 2 p.m. matinee each day, then a 7 p.m. evening performances. Tickets range in price from $40 to $92, with limited, but great seats remaining for each of the six final performances. CLICK HERE for tickets.
Up next at Nashville Ballet will be Light: The Holocaust & Humanity Project, this year’s provocative entry in Nashville’s acclaimed annual Attitude series, featuring choreography by Ballet Austin Artistic Director, Stephen Mills with live musical accompaniment composed by minimalist Steve Reich, Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie, rhythmic genius Michael Gordon, Estonia-born Arvo Pärt and Philip Glass, currently enjoying a year-long residency at Carnegie Hall as 2017-2018 Deb’s Composer’s Chair . CLICK HERE for tickets and more information.
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