Although the Appalachian Ballet Company is a regional dance company, artistic director Amy Moore Morton can’t help but feel like she’s bringing her baby home this year.
The classic showpiece of the company’s season, “The Nutcracker,” will be performed in Knoxville the first weekend in December as it has for many years. This year, however, “The Nutcracker” will also be at the Clayton Center for the Arts, where the ballet company is the resident dance company.
“The big headline this year is we’ve got two weekends and two venues,” Morton said.
There will be no “scaled down” version for the home stage, either. Both productions are full ballets and both have the company’s signature live music.
“We have the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra at both. It’s a huge financial undertaking, but we’re giving our Maryville community the same thing as our Knoxville community. We’re giving them live music with each production.”
The opportunity hasn’t come without challenges. “The thing that has been difficult for me as a director is we have six shows. I have double cast several solo roles so we have double rehearsals but not double the time to prepare,” she said. “That has been a little scary and exciting. The dancers are stepping up and working hard.”
Morton said pressure is building as the production moves closer. Shows are scheduled Dec. 4 and 5 in Knoxville and Dec. 11 in Maryville.
The director, whose daughters, Kylie Morton and Laura Morton, are dancing lead roles, is feeling the pressure for her daughters. “They’re both very dedicated and harder on themselves than I am,” she said. “But being the director has been easy. Being the mother is a little more nerve wracking. Both girls are excited. Even though I’m sure there is underlying nervousness, they haven’t said so, and they’ve have handled it like professionals. Kylie is a professional, and Laura is learning from her.”
Morton said her daughter Kylie is helping Laura while at the same time practicing her own variations. And Kylie and Laura aren’t the only sisters performing in Nutcracker. “There are eight or nine different sets of sisters in the production, and they all tend to get very close this time of year helping each other and cheering each other on,” she said.
Morton said several families are also involved. Scott and Julianne Hitch of Blount County play the parents of lead character Clara, a new role for them.
“We also have two father-daughter situations. Richard Staley and his daughter, Hannah, are in the production. He plays a rat, and she is a soldier and so I put them together so they fight each other,” Morton said. “Pete McKensey and his daughter, Cayllah, are doing the same thing, so I paired them up, and they’re fighting each other.”
Morton said audience members usually sense how well the dancers get along. “I’ve gotten a lot of comments over the years, even from out-of-town guests who have seen other productions, and they talk about what a ‘warm-fuzzy’ feeling they see in our Nutcracker production,” she said. “They can tell the dancers and the parents in the opening scene have a good relationship and that the dancers enjoy each other. That translates to the audience.”
Something else Morton is excited about is that, for once, the Nutcracker isn’t competing with the state championship games the Maryville and Alcoa high school teams hope to make the first week of December. “The fact we’re doing a second weekend of shows in Maryville, we’re not competing against Maryville and Alcoa football,” she said. “The championship games will be over. They can see sports one weekend and art the next.”
Morton said there are four guest artists performing, including Kylie Morton, who was with the North Carolina Dance Theater out of Charlotte before returning home this season. They have Hungarian dancer Adam Schiffer from the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh. The production also has Australian dancer Aaron Smyth, who is with the American Ballet Theater Second Company out of New York City. Ted Seymour is with the Suzanne Farrell Co., in Washington, D.C.
Morton also praised longtime lighting director John Horner and production director Jan Valenti. “This is over 20 years now that John Horner has lit our productions, and Jan has been here that long as well,” Morton said. “They’re quite intimate with our productions.”
Morton said as the days wind down to the show and dancers finish final preparations, she always gets nervous about selling out her venues, but for many, attending the Nutcracker is a holiday tradition. There are 23 ballet companies in the Southeast United States and 21 of them are doing Nutcracker productions, she said.
“To me it is sort of the kick-off to the holidays following Thanksgiving. So many families use ‘Nutcracker’ as the start of their family holidays,” she said. “I’m excited and a little anxious but more excited than anxious. We have great parental support and lots of wonderful volunteers.”
Tickets range from $21 to $36 in advance and $26 to $41 at the door at both venues. “The Nutcracker” will be at the Knoxville Civic Auditorium at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 4, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 5. At the Clayton Center for the Arts, performances are at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 11.