The Missouri River Dance Company has defined itself very carefully in terms of being pre-professional, community-based, and dedicated to high quality artistic achievement -- not just in dance but also in relationship to art and music. “A Montana Dream,” a version of the classic Nutcracker, has demonstrated how powerful that focus can be.
The Great Falls Symphony supported a cast that ranged from national dance instructors to the littlest beginners from their classes, with walk-ons by local personalities, and sets by high-end local artists. So far as polish and sophistication, they were as good as anyone -- as good as road companies you’re likely to see, with the extra dimension that everyone on that stage (plus many in the audience) were there out of raw passion for the enterprise.
The germ of this production, guided by Sallyann Mulcahy, is re-inventing the story of Clara and her Christmas dream in terms of Montana rather than a European Victorian family. Beyond that, it is full of invention and surprises. When the fancy little female guests at the party pose prettily, the boys come behind to hold up rabbit ears over their heads. A rivalry develops between the “local boy” and the young officer who comes to visit and this carries through into the battle between the cavalry and Indians on stick horses, replacing the Nutcrackers and mice. Shots are exchanged, but no one is hurt. The same pertains to a hunting scene, wherein the hunter is carried off by wolves! The Arabian dance is saved by importing an Arabian horse, inhabited by a “spirit.” The sugarplums are replaced by animals ranging from a line of stylish dancing deer down to a couple of magpies. A cunning stuffed bear and a wind-up Indian maiden doll are supporting players. Chinese railroad workers and Spanish dancers take their turn, plus a multitude of girls in gingham and flower-girls.
The continuity is supplied by an Indian shaman with a clever little fox for an assistant, a cowboy uncle in red boots and a giant Stetson, and a white buffalo, exceptionally fluffy and light on his feet, but also by an eagle -- one of the most skilled dancers. The story starts quietly and ends in a great explosion of tour d’force dancing with plenty of jumps, turns, lifts, and extreme poses -- inspiring the audience to much applause and cries of bravo.
I got to the theatre early which meant that I had time to visit with a dancer from Missoula who was waiting for Jared Mesa, the White Buffalo, to bring out her comp ticket. We explored shared acquaintances and I began to realize what a network of these people has grown up around the state from local dance schools and university communities.
When I got to my seat, I visited with Travis Johnson, who is an Air Force veteran, a College of Great Falls student, and a sometimes worker at the CM Russell Museum, though now he's into motorcycles. (He says Anne Morand is “so cool she just rocks!”). The CMR Museum has been quick to support one of the major fund-raising programs of the Dance Company, which is mini art auctions. The art displayed upstairs, available for purchase, was focused on dance and absolutely stunning -- as high in quality as the famous annual CMR Auction. Especially remarkable were the fine works by Tom Gilleon and his wife, Laurie Stevens, who did the sets and posters as well. Also striking were a series of underwater dance paintings -- Undines freed from gravity and dancing pas de deux. Everyone’s favorite was of a gallery with a painting on the wall, a familiar Degas dancer in all her Frenchie finery. Below the painting stands a very stubborn looking little girl in a tutu who intends to do all this stuff her OWN way!
Next to me during the performance was a red-headed little girl named Molly who had brought a tiny monster with a light inside it to keep her occupied beforehand. I asked her if it were a “one-eyed one-horned flying purple people eater” and she asked in astonishment, “Do YOU know that song??” Indeed. I remember the “Pea Green Boat” on the public radio station from Missoula and how the hostess played the song so many times she finally put it on a forbidden list in order to recover.
Some of us feel rather that way about the Nutcracker. Just about every major city in Montana staged a performance this Christmas but none of the others made it as all new and yet familiar as home. The last time I saw this ballet was about a decade ago in Los Angeles where everything was the very best in the world. There was fog and “snow” in such abundance that I feared for the dancers’ ankles. There was fog and snow in the Montana production, too, but somewhat more moderately provided. And there was one thing LA didn’t have: a sunset like the aurora borealis that crept across the sky towards the end of the final act.
While I drove home, there was a sunset exactly like it on the great cyclorama of the Montana sky.