Christmas Day, 1845, Fort Vancouver: Cecilia Douglas and her sisters, the daughters of James Douglas, Fort Vancouver’s chief trader, are getting ready for a holiday party being held in the chief factor’s dining room. People from all over the world live and work at Fort Vancouver, and many of them will be attending the gathering.
Guests begin to arrive. In the dining room is a large grandfather clock, a weathered wardrobe and a fireplace. Outside, Mount Hood looms above the Fort’s log palisade. There’s a family from Scotland, a couple from Hawaii, a naval lieutenant from England and lots of children. There’s a man with long, gray hair, Dr. John McLoughlin, Fort Vancouver’s chief factor, the first person to plant an apple tree in the Northwest and tonight’s host.
He befriends Cecilia. He dazzles her with magic tricks. He procures a hundred apples from his hat. He has presents for all of the children. The dolls he gives them come to life.
When Cecilia goes to bed that night, her dreams are whimsical and fantastic. Giant beavers, tired of having their pelts stolen, battle with soldierly fur trappers. Later, she is whisked away to the banks of the Columbia River. Snow is falling, and the snowflakes begin to dance. The moonlight casts a shadowy iridescence across the water, and Cecilia watches in wonder.
You’re probably thinking that this is starting to sound less like Fort Vancouver history and more like “The Nutcracker,” and you’re right. It is Act 1 of Columbia Dance’s new production of “The Nutcracker,” which is inspired by Vancouver history and debuted last weekend at Skyview High School.
When Becky Moore moved to Vancouver in 2019 to take over the directorship at Columbia Dance, she was struck by the rich history of Fort Vancouver, fur trappers and the local Indigenous people.
As an experienced dancer and dance instructor, Moore had been a part of numerous “Nutcracker” productions. One that stood out to her was in Washington, D.C., that was inspired by American history and included characters such as George Washington and other founding fathers.
Learning about Vancouver’s history, she wondered: Maybe something similarly inspired by history could happen here.
Having been director for only a few months, she figured such a production was down the line. But then an opportunity presented itself: Both the city of Vancouver and Clark County had arts, culture and heritage grants available.
“We decided we should go for it,” Moore said, “because this idea was arts, culture and heritage all in one package.”
Columbia Dance received the grants, totaling $19,000, and planning for the production was soon underway.
Organizers started working with two curators from the National Park Service at Fort Vancouver in the summer of 2019. Together, they picked which characters from Fort Vancouver history to include in the production, landing on Cecilia and James Douglas, Dr. John McLoughlin and others.
“The biggest challenge was that there weren’t that many children at the Fort at that time,” Moore said.
One chosen character was Royal Navy Lt. William Peel.
“On the naval ships, they would have Navy boys that were 14 years old, and so we went, ‘Great, we’ll have Lt. Peel bring three Navy boys to the party,’ ” Moore said. “That’s kind of how we went about selecting the cast.”
In addition to working with the curators, organizers also met with representatives from the Chinook Indian Nation, the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, as well as the Ke Kukui Foundation and experts on Scottish heritage in the area.
Organizers wanted to highlight the heritage of all the populations in the area at that time without appropriating anyone’s culture, Moore said, and the council representatives helped guide costume design, set design and more. For example, instead of using purely historical costumes, organizers decided to weave in historical elements, such as abalone and mother-of-pearl, materials commonly traded among local tribes and used in jewelry.
“We felt that the subtle iridescence of those materials would be absolutely stunning in the moonlight during the snow scene,” Moore said.
The COVID-19 pandemic halted the production, and Columbia Dance couldn’t do a “Nutcracker” production in 2020, making this year an exciting return. Act 1 debuted this year; Act 2 will debut next year.
“When we get to Act 2 next year, we’ll be highlighting the people that live outside of the Fort’s walls,” Moore said. “We’re going to have French Canadian voyagers, Indigenous Wapato harvesters and three Japanese men that shipwrecked on their way to Tokyo and landed at Fort Vancouver.”
“The traditional ‘Nutcracker’ is very outdated in 2021, and we want to move away from that construct,” Moore continued.
To complete production for Act 2, Columbia Dance needs to raise $50,000. According to Moore, Columbia Dance is run almost entirely on volunteer labor hours. While costumes and sets are professionally designed, parents usually sew and construct them.
“It’s a very homegrown operation,” Moore said. “It’s incredible to see a handful of professionals in the industry work with a slew of volunteers and more than 70 kids to pull this magical thing together for the whole community.”
During dress rehearsal on Dec. 14 before the debut performance, Clark Covens, 9, was getting ready for his role as a party guest. It wasn’t his first time performing in a “Nutcracker performance” — it’s his favorite thing about the holidays, he said.
Another performer, Sophia Dickman, 15, was also getting ready. Instead of the militant mice traditionally seen in “The Nutcracker,” Dickman would be playing one of Fort Vancouver’s famous beavers.
“I’ve learned a lot of facts about beavers during this production,” she said. “It’s going to be really fun for the audience, and they’re going to learn things as well. I also learned a lot about the cultures that influenced the production.”
She was excited to get back to performing after the delay caused by the pandemic. However, like all of the other dancers, she would be wearing a mask for safety.
“I can’t wait for the battle scene,” she said. “It’s going to be so much fun.”
Columbia Dance’s production of “The Nutcracker” can still be viewed for purchase until Jan. 19 on its website.
Editor’s note: The dollar figure for the grant the dance company received has been updated.