Arts and Entertainment

Preview: holiday classic The Nutcracker promises to enthrall audiences

By Haley Lynch ’17

This weekend, Utica Dance will come to the Hill to perform Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker accompanied live by the Hamilton College Orchestra, conducted by Associate Professor of Music Heather Buchman.  Originally known as the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute Dance Program, Utica Dance is now independently owned and directed by Nancy Long.   As a former professional dancer herself, Long is well-equipped to teach all levels of dance students, and works to guide many of them on their paths to continued education and high-level performance at conservatories as well as at liberal arts colleges like Hamilton.

For the last 10 years, Utica Dance has presented its own Nutcracker production, but always with the assistance of a pre-recorded orchestra.  Long and Buchman became better acquainted last fall when Buchman began taking ballet lessons under Long’s instruction.  During this time, Buchman attended Utica Dance’s performance of The Nutcracker. “I was not only impressed by the quality of the performance, but also struck by The Nutcracker as an educational vehicle for both dancers and musicians.  Naturally it followed that it really should have a live performance,” Buchman said of the experience.

Buchman decided that our own Hamilton College Orchestra would be up for the challenge.  Much like the pre-professional dancers at Utica Dance who will be performing this weekend, the orchestra is composed mainly of students whose primary focus is not performance.  Although the orchestra performs at a very high level, the expectation of most orchestra members is not that they will one day become professional musicians.

Still, producing The Nutcracker can hardly be considered a typical extra-curricular activity.  Indeed, the score is notoriously difficult, and many dedicated hours of rehearsal on the part of the orchestra were required in order for this music to be perfected.  Buchman noted that in order for the project to be successful, the full dedication of her students would be required.  Luckily, “They saw the vision of this immediately.”

Concertmaster Candice McCardle ’15 commented, “I’ve really appreciated the opportunities I have at Hamilton to participate in ensembles. I can say with all honesty that the Nutcracker has been the most challenging piece of orchestral music I’ve worked on; that being said it has also been one of the most rewarding.” 

In addition to the orchestra in the pit, 18 women from the College Choir and College Hill Singers, directed by Marjorie and Robert W. McEwen Professor of Music G. Roberts Kolb, will be singing in the finale of Act I from the catwalk in Wellin, which should generate a captivating surround-sound experience for the audience.  To build excitement further, the Utica Dance performers will be joined by Hamilton’s own Wilne De Jésus Ledesma Arias ’15 for the Russian Dance in Act II.  He commented, “I have very much enjoyed being a part of Utica Dance’s The  Nutcracker performance.  There is a wonderful energy in this young group of dancers.  I get to every rehearsal eager to start working and see what I can learn from them.”

This production seems to represent a growing trend towards greater appreciation for the arts at Hamilton.  McCardle added, “Every year Hamilton brings a program of incredible performances to the school, which are often times lost in the shuffle of our busy lives.  I think this performance is particularly special because it offers students the chance to see a truly timeless and beautiful production at such convenience and proximity.”

Truly, The Nutcracker, which originally premiered in 1892, represents a perennial holiday classic.  This ballet is a cherished tradition full of childhood memories for so many.

Tchaikovsky’s original composition includes unusual colors, achieved through his use of woodwinds like English horn and bass clarinet, as well as more unusual instruments such as harp, and most notably, celeste, which is featured in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”  This particularly unconventional instrument is not easy to come by, but it is an essential component of the Tchaikovsky’s suite.  The ‘celeste’ that will be used this weekend is actually synthetic, a setup put together by Professor of Music Sam Pellman.

There are many other aspects of this production that make it unique.  The sets and props, as well as over 300 costumes, were all sewn and constructed by Long herself, with the help of “an army of volunteers.” 

Tchaikovsky worked very closely with Marius Petipa, a famed dancer and choreographer, during the process of composing and producing this ballet.  Long noted that their relationship is paralleled by this weekend’s performance.  She said, “After hearing the Hamilton Orchestra and guest musicians run through all their music, I was very impressed by their professional level of performance.  I went right back to the studio and told my dancers that the music would inspire us to work even harder.  I think working together motivated both groups to be the best they could be.”  Buchman also commented on the benefits of the collaboration, remarking, “Dancers and musicians have so much to learn from each other, because they work with the identical principles of expression – just music is in sound, and dance is in physical movement.  The energy is the same, and they both operate in space, with the same physical laws.”

According to Buchman, this ballet has never been produced with a non-professional orchestra, and this weekend’s production will be the only performance in Central New York with a live orchestra.   Both Buchman and Long recognize the challenges of attending a performance during the weekend leading up to finals, but are nonetheless confident that this magical production is not to be missed.

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