Dorothy Gunther Pugh on Nutcracker

I have sat for many, many years in the “house” of Memphis’ beautiful Orpheum Theatre seeing ballet after ballet rehearsed and performed, particularly various versions of our Nutcracker. In fact, for a few years, Ballet Memphis was able to afford all four of our major season works there, with the Symphony or live music at nearly every one. We have learned (in addition to the fact certain costs will always rise!), that there are some works that require a magic that is housed in glorious grandeur. Nutcracker is one, Cinderella is one, Swan Lake, Giselle, and our Peter Pan are too. Just as a symphony must play Beethoven and Brahms, a professional company of ballet dancers must dance certain works, because we are obligated to our community and our human family to inspire dreams of worlds that could be, but yet are not. We believe that the human spirit can be as beautiful as the ballet dancers’ bodies. And we must look for beauty in different bodies! We are obligated to examine our dreams and beliefs over and over too – are they espousing values now better off left behind, do they need updating, can they tell our human story in better ways, to ask us to be better people, see more, do more, include more?

Paintings require the right frame, and so do ballets. A narrative, like Nutcracker, that takes place in the 1800’s, when snow and ice were being seen mysteriously crystallizing on windows made available to many, many more homes, is likely in my mind to have influenced Tchaikovsky’s composition and story line of Nutcracker. The swirling dance of the snow spoke to the beautiful patterns in nature, and now in our time, thoughtful humans are rightly concerned about the polar ice caps and glaciers rapidly melting. Our snow dance now, in addition to reminding us of the nature we live in, could be begging us to become more vigilant stewards of that capacious natural world. The crystalline, magic movement that is part of our snow scene is in the perfect frame, where chandeliers echo the play of light, light which can prism into magic color spectrums. The science is real, but it in no way diminishes the uplift that the beauty brings our spirit. The Orpheum setting enhances and helps us engage in the human capacity to choose, imagine, and experience a large and bold world, ergo large and bold ideas.

I suspect that a story as old as Nutcracker (or say Cinderella, which is thousands of years old), was somewhat unusual during its time for the heroine actually being a young girl. And this young girl in our version, is integral to the defeat of the wicked Mouse King and his sinister forces, rushing into the midst of a sword fight to push the king into better position for his demise. Might this have been a call to take power from the Tsar and oligarchs and spread it to others? I like to think of Clara’s spontaneous bravery and determination in the face of war, or evil, or injustice. I like that thousands of children and their families fill the Orpheum to see Clara step up and say “small girl that I am, I can do this!”

It was the celebration of many cultures together, to one purpose, to express gratitude to Clara for how she confronted her fear and helped the Nutcracker vanquish wrong. I have often said it can be looked at as the first League of Nations, then the first United Nations, where global powers lauded youth and innocence, and all these powers, these different cultures, dance together. It is a grand moment of choosing all over one, of cooperation over conflict, and with both heroines/leaders being a young girl (Clara) and a woman (Sugar Plum), through the screen of theatre magic.

The sparkle of a chandelier, alight on ice and snow, or of a spotlit tiara’s casting brilliance across the eyes of thousands watching, both speak of human dreams needing to become reality. They tell us that physical beauty needs to reflect the beauty of a soul and its promise. Ballets like the Nutcracker, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Giselle, Coppelia, Swan Lake, Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan all have women or children or girls as the ultimate center of the narrative, the north star of the story. These ballets are still here amongst us in large part because the potential has not been truly fulfilled. And if potential is fulfilled, we will have to remain vigilant in upholding it and protecting it. Power can destroy and corrupt. Truth and beauty can be hard to see and understand, and demands hard work, determination, and support. We must be like Clara, and the Sugar Plum Fairy. We must be like Cinderella, determined to serve with kindness but never be snuffed out. We are grateful to the Orpheum as its beauty goes hand in hand with our classic stories’ aspirations, where so many people can come and be a part of Ballet Memphis’ long vision of a just world filled with hope and abundant love. May we all carry our best hopes together this season and in every season left to us, sharing our kindness and blessings with those alike and different..

With great gratitude,

Dorothy Gunther Pugh
CEO/founding artistic director
December, 2019