Nutcracker requires intimate conversation between musicians, dancers

Deanna Tham

One of the best parts of holding the title of Assistant Conductor is how much community engagement the position affords. I get to travel with music to outside communities, bring the excitement of sound to students, and share the treasures of the score with people who may not have thought to step into the hall. This also includes collaborations with other community organizations and art forms that usually yield projects that are immersive, unique and grandiose.

One of the oldest and most visceral forms of arts collaboration is the one between music and dance. The postures of our bodies inform so much of our emotion and our interaction with the world, and it is said that when we are “moved” by a piece of music or art, it compels our bodies to physically change position or posture, thereby affecting our very primitive feelings. Dance models this. As it moves with music through sound and time, it permits this change and lets us live our own bodies through what we see on the stage.

The First Coast Nutcracker production in Jacksonville is the only local production that stages the work with live symphonic music. This creates an energy and excitement that is unique for both the dancers and musicians involved. For many young dancers, this will be the first time they dance to live sound. They will feel the air vibrate with the purity and realness of the instrumentalists supporting their movement. For the seasoned dancers, we create the distinctive experience of being subject to each other’s creativity, experience and artistic lens. Most importantly, if you listen and watch carefully, the audience is drawn into this relationship as well — a remarkable buzzing in the air of people connecting, sharing and understanding each other.

For soloists Diana Gómez, Joseph Gatti and I, the conductor, every performance will be special. My favorite scenes are the two “Pas de Deux” at the ends of the first and second acts, where it truly feels like a duet between the soloists on stage and the pit. Without the spectacle of the ensemble dancers, Diana, Joseph and I are locked in one of the most honest and intimate conversations — reading each other through our bodies and souls in the movement and the sound. Together, we weave a narrative in real time, the pacing of my crescendos or tapering of phrases affecting a flourish of the wrist, height of a jump or transition to a lift. In turn, her emphasis of a balance or subtle raise of the chin may change how I approach a ritardando into the end of the duet.

That is not to say there aren’t other fantastic moments in the choreography and the score. The Arabian Dance is full of so many incredible and seductive feats that sometimes I forget to keep conducting as I hold my breath, trying to time the final note to help the dance be absolutely flawless. I love watching the polichinelle children emerge from Mother Ginger’s dress: a reminder that this is nothing if not a spectacle of engineering and magic tricks. The first act music is absolutely genius as a vehicle of storytelling — that with hardly any dancing and no dialogue, it is so obvious what is happening in the story and that it flows so seamlessly and unequivocally. Of course, Tchaikovsky! Of course the music must sound this way! And finally, the tempo marking “Tempo di Gross-Vater” (Tempo of Grandfather) for the Grandfather’s Dance always makes me giggle — as if it is so obvious what a grandfather’s tempo should be.

This is what makes conducting the 48th season of the Jacksonville Symphony’s First Coast Nutcracker seem like the very first. If you combine the number of times the Jacksonville Symphony musicians I work with in the pit and I, myself, have performed the work, you would probably get a count of close to 900 individual shows. Nine hundred times played through the entire 2-plus hour work from beginning to end, 900 times the smoke from the machine in the second act gets inhaled and expelled through our instruments, 900 times a stray bit of snow from the Act One Finale found its way into an instrument case. And yet, the magical symbiosis between music and dance filtered through the lens of a ballet genius like Tchaikovsky means that we will gladly play for 900 more.

By Deanna Tham, Assistant Conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony and Principal Conductor of the Jacksonville Symphony Youth Orchestras