Culture Dec 2012
“The Waltz of the Flowers” has never sounded like this
By Elizabeth Link
or more than ten years, Ballet DeSoto has been delighting audiences across the MidSouth with its exciting renditions of classic dance pieces. The major highlight of the group is their annual rendition of the Nutcracker and their Spring ballet. As a ballet company yielding its talent from local dancers, the group has had to be open to everyone who auditions for the year’s performances, as well as challenged to adapt its performances in a way that feels unique and modern for the dancers involved. While prepping for this year’s performance of “The Wild West Nutcracker,” Ballet DeSoto director Jill Morris talks about the history of the nonprofit and how the shows truly help young dancers grow as young women.
When Ballet DeSoto first began, it partnered with other dance companies in the greater Memphis area for dancers and support. The group broke out and began hosting its own performances in DeSoto Center Theatre before switching to Hernando Performing Arts Center three years ago. The new venue proved to be a major impetus for the group to evolve their choreography because the theatre featured a “fly space,” so the company was able to use a backdrop to set the location and ambiance of the performance rather than using heavy scenery, which would hinder the range and breadth of the dance numbers. Now, the choreography is much more challenging for the dancers and aggressive in style, which stretches the dancers’ ability in the art form and adds an exciting flair for the audiences.
Morris acknowledged that because they never know who will be coming out for audition, they always try to be open to what the show will become each year. As the Nutcracker is one of the most well-known and anticipated ballets, the group performed the traditional ballet and storyline for three years. Things took a major turn for the group when one year, they were not able to book the standard theatre in December; and so, Morris and her fellow collaborators had to find a way to bring the Nutcracker to life in a manner fitting for an October show. The answer proved to be a simple one: turn the Nutcracker into a masquerade. The children loved the new theme for the performance because it gave them the freedom to bring their own ideas to life in a way that still preserved the classic story. Since then, the Nutcracker has adapted a new, original theme each year: from a Las Vegas-themed show, where the Nutcracker gets married at a wedding chapel, to “A Very Brady Nutcracker,” and a world tour-themed show, which incorporated eclectic dance styles such as Arabian and Turkish.
Morris described preparation for “The Wild West Nutcracker” as “the most fun as far as choreography goes. We researched to find the correct theme-based dances, so square dancing and line dancing are incorporated, which makes it a very American story. Also, this year, instead of it being a Christmas story, it’s a birthday story that’s elaborate, with a lot of people and intricate footwork, so we have to coordinate that on a large scale.”
One thing that does stay the same is the enthusiasm of the dancers to play the roles they have dreamed about playing. Morris takes this especially to heart as she plans the music for each year’s themed-performances. “The well-known pieces are still there like the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies’ or ‘The Dance of the Snow’; they just have a Western flair. That’s important because they wait years to be parts of these pieces. ‘The Waltz of the Flowers’ song is set to a modern mandolin quartet, which is beautiful.”
Young ballerinas not only look forward to dancing the main roles in the show, but according to Morris, the younger girls really look up to the older girls as role models. As such, there are guiding rules for how the teenage girls dress and speak. Nutrition is also a main teaching point in the organization, as only healthy snacks and water are allowed during rehearsals. Young women who have been dancing with the company for years are even given the opportunity to stretch their abilities as dancers and choreograph dance numbers for the younger girls. One such ballerina, who has danced in a variety of Nutcracker performances, is 16-year-old, DeSoto Central High School student Noelle Billings. Billings states, “I love Ballet DeSoto and all the girls. It’s such a great experience. I encourage anyone thinking about joining to come out because you make a lot of friends.”
This year, Billings has spent approximately three months training as one of the main soloists in this year’s performance. She was also given the opportunity to choreograph dances for the young ballerinas, which she enjoyed because she would not normally get to work with such new dancers.
Despite the months of planning and work that Morris and all of the dancers put in to creating a magical experience, she says that the real champions of the show are the parents and caregivers of the dancers, since they are responsible for providing transportation to all of the rehearsals and making sure their girls are in full costume for opening night.
Much of the support for the organization also comes from the DeSoto Arts Council, which is a major partner of the organization. This year, Ballet DeSoto treated the guests with a preview scene from the Nutcracker at the Winter Fine Arts Exhibit Show. All proceeds for the show go to help the non-profit continue to grow and create even better performances each year. Auditions for the Spring show, “Peter and the Wolf,” an original, nature-inspired piece, will take place on Monday, December 17. For more information about Ballet DeSoto, check out their Web site at balletdesoto.com.
Dancers with Ballet DeSoto audition for the annual Nutcracker show in August and then just a few weeks after the Christmas ballet closes, they turn around and begin auditions in December for the Spring ballet. Ballerinas range in age from two years-old to college-aged dancers and even adults, if they are needed for the show. For Morris, there are many benefits for young girls to become a part of the ballet. “It gives freedom to the girls, especially those in that ‘tween stage, to feel part of a team and to feel valued.”