Monday, March 20, 2023
March 20, 2023

Linkedin Pinterest

Columbia Dance’s ‘The Nutcracker’ set in 1845 Fort Vancouver

Christmas classic is recast in local light at Vancouver dance company

By , Columbian staff writer
9 Photos
"Nutcracker" dancers Esther Tully (as Cecelia), left, and Sophie Dickman (as Le Castor, the beaver king) share a chuckle during dress rehearsal at Columbia Dance.
"Nutcracker" dancers Esther Tully (as Cecelia), left, and Sophie Dickman (as Le Castor, the beaver king) share a chuckle during dress rehearsal at Columbia Dance. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

After years of aesthetic development and pandemic patience, Columbia Dance’s uniquely reimagined “Nutcracker” is ready for its holiday debut.

Forget about gingerbread soldiers battling mice and that dance-off of sweets from around the world. This “Nutcracker” moves the classic Russian fairy tale to our own slice of the American frontier, recasting its characters as real historical inhabitants of Fort Vancouver in 1845.

Beavers battle trappers, an explorer paddles a canoe along a river as wapato and salmon dance, an Indigenous woman calls to the moon, and a wagonful of weary settlers arrives at the Hudson’s Bay Company. They’re all portrayed by 70 young dancers plus a handful of hired guest artists and volunteering parents, according to artistic director Becky Moore.

When Moore arrived in Vancouver to take the helm at downtown’s Columbia Dance in 2019, she said, the company’s annual “Nutcracker” was very traditional and a little tired. Eager to try something new, Moore was impressed both by Vancouver’s pride in its frontier history and by the fact that the city was rolling out a new arts-and-culture grant program.

Her vision for a super-local, historical version of “The Nutcracker” won a $10,000 grant, and Moore was off and running. While the coronavirus pandemic stopped nearly everything when it hit in early 2020, it didn’t stop Moore from pursuing the project, often via Zoom meetings with cultural and historical experts.

If You Go

What: Columbia Dance’s “The Fort Vancouver Nutcracker”

When: 1 and 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Sensory-friendly performance (lower music, some house lights on, noise OK) at 6 p.m. Dec. 16. The 5 p.m. performances are available by livestream.

Where: Skyview High School, 1300 N.W. 139th St., Vancouver

Tickets: $23 in advance, $25 at the door. Youth: $18 in advance, $20 at the door

“I would have felt very disconnected without it,” she said.

She started with Fort Vancouver curators Theresa Langford and Megan Huff, who came up with detailed suggestions for recasting “Nutcracker” characters as genuine historical figures. In this version, in place of the mysterious Drosselmeyer and young heroine Clara, we have Chief Factor John McLoughlin unleashing Christmas magic at midnight and Cecelia Douglas, the real daughter of fort official James Douglas and his wife Amelia, going on the subsequent dreamy journey.

Amelia Douglas’ mixed ancestry is on display in her costume, which combines Indigenous and European elements. The creativity of costume designer Christine Darch and set designer Thyra Hartshorn brings a historical and rustic look to this production, Moore said.

(Not all costumes were ready when The Columbian visited a partial dress rehearsal in early December. That’s why many dancers in these photos are missing finished costumes and tutus. Parents were out in the studio lobby, diligently stitching away.)

To make sure their historical details were accurate and respectful, Moore and her team consulted with representatives of the Chinook Indian Nation and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde.

“We wanted to highlight the cultural diversity that has always been Vancouver without appropriating and stereotyping,” she said.

The plan always was to roll out Columbia Dance’s ambitious “The Fort Vancouver Nutcracker” in segments across several years, Moore said; the first half has been seen on video and on stage before. This holiday season is the debut of the whole live production, start to finish.

Reaching out

Columbia Dance is reaching out to make sure everybody who’s interested can enjoy this unique local production, Moore said.

  • The Dec. 16 show will be “sensory friendly” — with music softened, partially lit house lights and no “sushing” — so people with sensory concerns can feel free to attend.
  • As many as 1,000 tickets will be given away through local school districts as well as nonprofit agencies like Share and the Clark County Food Bank.
  • All third-graders in Vancouver Public Schools have spent four school dance classes this semester studying “The Nutcracker,” and they took field trips to see the show at Skyview, Moore said.

The lessons included set design and costume design, choreography, pantomime and plot, as well as three sequences of dance steps from the production, Moore said.

“Our ‘Nutcracker’ weaves the history of Fort Vancouver in the 1840s into the plot so they get a history lesson as well,” she said.