This Week: A ‘Nutcracker’ with Poodles

When you think of ballet and dance, you think of movement made beautiful, made vocal, in a sense. You think, too, of energy and flight and, oddly enough, pictures.

Talking on the phone with Victoria Morgan, who is both artistic director and chief executive officer of Cincinnati Ballet — which is bringing its and her version of “The Nutcracker” to the Kennedy Center Opera House Nov. 23, 25, 26 and 27 — you get some of that same energy, and feelings of buoyancy, notions of what dance is and means in the world we live in.

She is celebrating her 20th year as artistic director, taking on the CEO role more recently. Before all that, not surprisingly, she was a dancer.

“We are so honored to be able to perform here and come here to the Kennedy Center,” she said. “It’s always about moving forward, and this is definitely a step forward, to be here in the nation’s performance center.”

Other companies have brought “Nutcrackers” to the Opera House. It is a telling and traditional part of the season, after all, not excluding the presence of the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker.”

To the casual observer, “The Nutcracker,” with Tchaikovsky’s rich and enticing music and set pieces involving sugar plum fairies, heroes, the wide-eyed heroine Clara and her Nutcracker prince, is an embracing cliché, like all the tropes and memes of Christmas and the holiday spirit. “It changes over time, here and there, but never too much,” she says. “It’s always ‘The Nutcracker.’

“I think, when we think about ballet, for most people, this is the place where they’ve first encountered dance on stage, or the stage itself, with ballet. It’s a significant, pivotal time, especially for young children,” Morgan said. “Parents bring them to it, and I suspect, I know, it’s something most children never forget. Many of them begin their interest in dancing here, and participate, go on stage and take part. And those same people will bring their children. So it’s one of those things that is a tradition. It’s certainly been a part of my world and my life for a significant amount of time.”

Morgan was a prima ballerina at the San Francisco Ballet and danced with Ballet West, where she danced leading roles in classical ballet and Balanchine ballets. “‘The Nutcracker,’ in many different ways, in some ways or another, has been a big part of my whole life — encountering it as a child, dancing it when I was 12 years old, here in Cincinnati. I think I’ve probably done everything in it — the small parts, the bigger parts, all of it, soldier, snowflake, sugar plum — so in that sense it’s a very ingrained part of who I am. And I love working with it, being a part of it still, even in a different role.

“Ours is a little different, it’s a little more contemporary, there is a lot of energy. It’s acrobatic, and Clara has a pet companion, a poodle named Minnie,” she said. While there are snowballs and cupcakes, and all the traditional ingredients, there is also an ensemble of poodles performing the Dance of the Mirlitons (“Mirlipoos”).

The presence of the poodles is probably no accident. They’re an affectionate and spectacular reference to her own beloved poodle, Teddy Moe.

Morgan is one of only five female artistic directors of major dance companies, those with operating budgets of $5 million or more. We noted the Suzanne Farrell Ballet at the Kennedy Center, and the recent appointment of ABT star Julie Kent at the Washington Ballet.

Morgan said that “being part of a dance company is like a family of sorts, and being able to build a company is the most challenging of things. Because a company, and dancers themselves, are a contradictory thing. There’s the creativity and freedom of creativity, and then the fact that it all happens in atmosphere of really strong discipline. And you have to have both.”

To this observer, watching a dance, be it Balanchine or Graham or Tharp, is to get a suggestion of flight, of artists — both dancers and choreographers — working on a canvas of air.

“That’s the hardest part, that fine balance, achieving that balance of freedom and discipline,” she said. To her, it’s about control, certainly, but in the interest of creating magic, of having the opportunity to make that happen.

Obviously, for an artistic leader and creator, as well as a CEO, she has a strong pragmatic streak. But when she’s talking — about the camaraderie of a company, about dancing and dance, the freedom and discipline of the stage, even poodles — she creates her own entirely welcoming energy.

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