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Center Stage: Bristol Ballet presents 'The Nutcracker' at Paramount

December 06, 2018

BY TOM NETHERLAND | SPECIAL TO THE HERALD COURIER

BRISTOL, Va. — Christmas abounds at Bristol Ballet.

Twinkling notes of Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” like icicles dancing, recently tip-toed through the corridors of Bristol Ballet. Down the stairs and hallways, into the Nutcracker-laden lobby whispered the intriguingly delicate sounds.

Upon the third floor, dancers prepared. Michele Plescia, artistic director of the longtime company, led them through the rigors that will culminate Friday and Saturday with performances of “The Nutcracker” across the road at the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee.

“It’s a Christmas tradition,” said Cameron Roberts, 15, of Bristol, Tennessee.

Roberts numbers among several dozen dancers from Bristol Ballet in “The Nutcracker.” They add to a decadeslong tradition of the beloved Christmastime ballet in Bristol.

“We’re taking a ballet that’s over 100 years old and making it relevant for today and for our community,” said Plescia, days earlier while seated in her office.

“It’s challenging. It’s charming. But you always have to be open to new ideas in the ballet.”

Bristol Ballet’s new ideas for “The Nutcracker” include the incorporation of dogs in the production. To that end, Saturday’s early performance is billed as “Pupcracker.”

“We’re partnering with Sullivan County Animal Shelter,” Plescia said. “They will have dogs up for adoption at the Paramount. Plus, we have two four-legged cast members, Ryder and Samson. Ryder is a lovable Labradoodle. Samson is a wonderful German Shepherd.”

Perhaps Bristol Ballet’s most obvious and radical alteration comes in the form of Maybelle Carter. Affectionately known as Mother Maybelle, the late matriarch of the country music pioneering Carter Family of Southwest Virginia, will figure prominently in one scene.

For now, part of Maybelle rests in a bag on Plescia’s desk.

“That’s Mother Maybelle’s hair,” Plescia said. “I hope it fits Tim Baker’s head!”

Bristol’s Tim Baker, husband of Birthplace of Country Music official Charlene Baker, appears as Maybelle Carter. Attired in period clothing worthy of a 1930s-era rural country queen, a cadre of Carter sisters accompany Baker in the classic country twist to the venerated classical ballet.

“It’s in act two,” Plescia said. “The Carter sisters will have banjos and fiddles. I wanted to bring elements into ‘The Nutcracker’ that are representations and flavors of Bristol’s music history.”

Such cleverness accentuates the palpable allure of “The Nutcracker.” Drama drips like leaky faucets of intrigue. Evil lurks. Goodness imperils. Incredible happenstances unfurl.

“I get to play an evil villain,” said MacKenzie Hall, 17, who portrays the Rat Queen. “Very mysterious, always trying to come up with ways to scare Clara and defeat The Nutcracker.”

As with most any well-contoured production of art, litanies of inspiration can arise from consumption. For many, it’s the music of “The Nutcracker” that compels repeated viewings. For others, it’s the seething drama and riveting story.

Whatever the case, E.T.A. Hoffman’s creation inspires thought.

“I usually think of ‘The Nutcracker’ soldiers, and I think of the Russians, and Christmas,” said Zaiah Gray, 12, who plays Fritz. “Most of the time, I think of Christmas.”

Christmas awaits nearly three weeks into the future. For Plescia and her charges at Bristol Ballet, the holiday began months ago.

“We’re having Christmas in November,” said Olivia Millwood, 17. “Not only the music, but there’s a Christmas party. There are presents everywhere. Like, oh my gosh! It’s Christmas!”

For generations of attendees, that’s “The Nutcracker” in a nutshell: It’s Christmas, a grand tradition within a grand tradition.

“It’s a joyful time,” Roberts said.