With no stage available this year due to the pandemic, downtown Vancouver’s Columbia Dance company came up with a creative workaround for its local, historical version of “The Nutrcracker”: the ideal backdrop, Fort Vancouver itself.
Two dancing family units performed scenes from the classic Christmas ballet inside the fort over the past few weeks, starting at the Chief Factor’s House one Saturday in mid-November, while company videographer Troy Wayrynen worked the camera.
First came sisters Charlotte and Olivia Hill and their dad, Jeff Hill; after they were gone, dancer Serena Malcom and her parents, Rebecca and Brian Malcom, arrived to continue the video mashup of yule fairy tale and pioneer Vancouver of the 1840s.
Columbia Dance director and choreographer Becky Moore scheduled the separate family performances in order to maintain safe social distance between groups, she said. Everyone who participated wore masks when indoors. The dancers removed their masks only while recording their performances.
This re-imagined “Nutcracker” is uniquely local, inserting actual historical figures into traditional ballet roles. The family of James Douglas (a fort official and later the governor of British Columbia) subs for the original tale’s holiday partiers, the Stahlbaums, and Chief Factor John McLoughlin replaces the mysterious Drosselmeyer, who unleashes Christmas magic at midnight. In an early scene at McLoughlin’s house, the Douglas sisters (as portrayed by the Hill sisters) steal into the grand dining room after hours, and bump into a scolding steward (Jeff Hill, their dad).
Later scenes also reflect real local history, Moore said. Battling magical mice and wooden soldiers have been replaced by beavers versus trappers on the banks of the Columbia River. For the grand finale, a multicultural showcase that usually features Spanish and Arabian dances now stars Indigenous as well as Hawaiian, French, Canadian and Scottish dance styles.
Moore consulted local historical experts and is still trying for meetings with Cowlitz and Chinook representatives in order to accurately portray “the amazing array of cultures that made up Vancouver in the 1840s,” she said. “We are so excited to highlight the cultural diversity that has been a part of Vancouver’s rich history.”
Her creative resetting of the “The Nutcracker” — a Russian ballet based on a German story — as a piece of American pioneer history earned grants worth just under $20,000 in total from Vancouver and Clark County last year. Seventeen historical costumes have already been created by Christine Darch, a New York designer, and sets by Thyra Hartshorn of Portland were in the works when the pandemic struck and everything stopped, Moore said.
The plan was to present this new “Nutcracker” in three parts over three years, with part one of the Christmas party scene going live onstage at the Vancouver School of Arts and Academics this year, followed by party scene part two and the riverside battle in 2021, followed by the grand finale dance showcase in 2022. Moore was looking forward to audiences in the thousands every year.
A three-year rollout is still the plan, she said, but Columbia Dance’s overall money picture is much murkier now. The nonprofit has had to shift funds to cover disappearing tuitions and state-mandated smaller classes. Meanwhile “The Nutcracker” project remains expensive. She’s hoping the two-minute video preview will help the company raise an additional $90,000 to help the show get staged in the end– when the world has gone back to normal.
“We pivoted and came up with a way to create a little preview,” Moore said.
If you’re interested in helping, visit www.columbiadance.org/donate-2.
“We are thrilled for stuff like this, helping people connect with this place virtually,” said Fort Vancouver curator Theresa Langford, who was chaperoning the Columbia Dance group when The Columbian stopped by in November. She reminded them, for example, never to touch the plates or silverware on the big dining table in McLoughlin’s house. The entire fort is a museum, she said, and those artifacts are museum pieces. Langford did all the handling of objects.
“What a great way to celebrate this place in a new way,” Langford said. “We love the idea of a Fort Vancouver ‘Nutcracker.’ ”