This December, a Christmas classic is getting infused with Russian flavor with Chattanooga’s first ever showing of the Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker.” One of 80 cities in the Moscow Ballet’s North American tour, the company’s Nutcracker performance will be in town for one night only on December 21 at 7 p.m. at the Tivoli Theater.
With curtains opening to the famous onion dome Moscow skyline, audiences will find themselves transported to a faraway winter land from the start of the opening act. Performed to Tchaikovsky’s full score, the Moscow Ballet’s interpretation of this beloved Christmas tale is interwoven with whimsical Russian touches including troika sleighs, life-sized matryoshka dolls and lavish hand-made costumes in the Russian style.
“We add into the performance a lot of Russian original styles and techniques,” says Moscow Ballet Ballerina and Audition Director Sanda Lungu, who is on her second tour as a soloist with the company and hails from Moldova’s esteemed National Academy of Ballet and Opera.
Telling the story of a girl who falls in love with the Nutcracker Prince on Christmas Eve, the ballet follows Masha—the Russian variation of Clara—as she journeys through the Snow Forest and the Land of Peace and Harmony instead of the Land of Sweets, escorted by Father Christmas and the Snow Maiden.
“In the American ballet, the second act is the ‘Land of Sweets’ with the Sugar Plum Fairy, but we don’t have this part or this character,” says Lungu. “In the Russian ballet, the second act starts with the Dove of Peace, which is a boy and a girl who each have wings 20 feet long.”
Additionally, Masha’s journey takes on even greater global flavor as ambassadors from different parts of the world come to dance for the heroine and her prince. But while the “Great Russian Nutcracker” is rolling into town with international flair, its heart is a decidedly local one as the company invites local ballet students to perform alongside the troupe’s approximately 40 professional ballerinas and dancers.
“We want to give opportunity for kids who live here to dance with the Russian ballet and see the original ballet techniques and stand on the same stage with professional dancers,” says Lungu.
Through Moscow Ballet’s “Dance with Us” program, the company extends this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to children in each of Moscow Ballet’s host cities to audition for background roles, such as the mice, snowflakes, snow maidens, party children and more.
Over the past two decades, more than 75,000 student dancers in North America have performed alongside the Russian company, and now Chattanooga’s young dancers will be taking the stage. Partnering with the Hamilton Academy of Dance on Hixson Pike as its local host studio, Sanda Lungu held auditions alongside Hamilton Academy of Dance Owner and Director Patricia Ryan—who is also a retired professional ballerina—for local children ages 7 to 17 years old with at least one year of ballet training.
“We look for beautiful, clean lines…talent, good shape and character,” says Lungu. “We love to see kids who have feeling when they dance.”
Moscow Ballet chose to partner with the Hamilton Academy of Dance because of Ryan’s training in the Vaganova method—a classic Russian ballet tradition inspired by Russian ballerina Agrippina Vaganova. “We recognized this is as a good school and a good level for us,” says Lungu, who acknowledged that Ryan is the only instructor in Chattanooga teaching the Vaganova technique. The Hamilton Academy of Dance also offers classes in tap, jazz, modern, hip hop and more. Ryan herself began training in the Vaganova method from the age of five, while Lungu first took to the dance floor when she was just 5½ years old.
“I remember the first time I danced with a professional troupe,” says Lungu. “I never forget this feeling. Every time when I dance, I’m excited and I enter another world, but that first time was unforgettable.”
That’s a feeling many Chattanooga dancers will soon understand as they take the stage alongside Moscow Ballet’s award-winning company, following 6-8 weeks of rehearsal. But viewers are guaranteed to be just as captivated as the dancers. When asked why she feels ballet manages to capture the hearts of audiences around the world, Lungu says simply: “Because it’s a lot of grace, and everything looks very easy. I think for a lot of people they see us fly across the stage, and it looks like magic.”
A magic that first started for Lungu with the dreams of her mother. “My mom her whole life said she wanted to do ballet, but she couldn’t because she lived in the country. So she told everybody, ‘I want to be a ballerina, I want to be a ballerina,’ and I was born with this idea in my head I think. So it’s very close to my heart.”
But as for what makes the story of The Nutcracker such an enduring holiday classic, Lungu—who first danced the in The Nutcracker ballet when she was 16 years old— said that along with being a performance the whole family can enjoy, “I think every time people watch The Nutcracker ballet, it is something new and interesting. The performance is a classic—one that never dies. Every time is captivating for the audience.”
While this will be the Moscow Ballet’s first time in Chattanooga, it seems it won’t be its last. “Usually once we establish a relationship with a local academy of dance and with the city, we come back for more than one year.” A promise we’ll look forward to it again next Christmas.
Story by Callie Smith
Photography courtesy of Moscow Ballet