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Q&A with ‘The Nutcracker’ director Michael Vernon


The Musical Arts Center will stage its second ballet of the semester with Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.” The production will be directed by acclaimed choreographer Michael Vernon, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 1 through 3 and 2 p.m. Dec. 3 through 4. 

First produced at IU in 2007, Vernon has continued to entertain audiences with his spectacular choreography. The Indiana Daily Student spoke with Vernon about his role as director of “The Nutcracker” on Nov. 7. 

IDS: Going back to the beginning, what first got you into ballet? 

Vernon: Oh gosh, we’re going a long way back. Well, I was born in London, and my mother had an interest in ballet and wanted someone to go with. So, I went with her and took to it immediately when I was 8. I went to see the Royal Ballet, and I remember it even now; she also took me because they would have royal command performances. They were really a benefit for the opera house that the Queen would attend, and it was a big ritual that also drew me into the whole theater and ritual of ballet. So, I sort of just saw it once and was hooked, the age-old story. 

IDS: So later on, when you came to America, were there any striking differences between the attitude towards ballet compared to the UK? 

Related: [Jacobs School of Music to premiere ‘Hansel and Gretel’ Nov. 11]

Vernon: Oh definitely, that’s one of the reasons I came. I always thought I was coming to America. What I didn’t realize was that I was coming to New York because New York is so different from the rest of America. There’s a much more modern approach to ballet — more up to date — and the UK is just steeped in convention, and while that’s not as true now as it was then, it was very conventional, and there were certain restrictions on who was going to get into the Royal Ballet and such. In America, they say that anyone can do anything, and it’s up to you to make your mark. So, there I found the freedom that I’d always wanted to be myself. 

IDS: And how did that mindset of having this freedom to pursue all your interests really impact your career? 

Vernon: Well, it became my career. I came in the 1970s. I’d worked on a movie in the UK, so I’d saved up enough money to live in New York for seven weeks and — like I always say — I’m still here. 

IDS: You’ve held numerous occupations with several renowned ballet companies and institutions. How have these experiences shaped you? 

Vernon: Well, I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve worked with some really great and interesting people and I’ve learned a lot. I just learned as I went, and one of my favorite sayings is “you can’t just teach, you can learn,” and I think I’ve just gone through life and learned as much as I could from everyone I’ve met. So, I’m just the sum of all that. 

IDS: Looking at the pieces you choreograph, where do you start? 

Vernon: Music. I see music in terms of dance and structure — it’s what makes a choreographer a choreographer. Not every choreographer is like that, but for me the starting point has always been the music and whether it moves me to move — not necessarily in the classical way but in the way that it has movement within it. Even if it’s very, very slow, I think there’s certain music which supports dance and a type of music that doesn’t. 

IDS: You got the chair position in the ballet department here at IU in 2006, what was it about the position that appealed to you? 

Vernon: It was the ability to really influence and teach such a skilled group of dancers and also to choose a repertoire of ballets for them that would both educate the dancers and educate the audiences. That’s always one of my mantras — that the audience needs entertainment and education — and that’s what I tried to bring them over those years. We did a lot of the classics of the dance world. We did Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and I tried to just broaden the minds and horizons of the dancers and audiences. 

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IDS: When did you first choreograph “The Nutcracker” for IU? 

Vernon: Well, “The Nutcracker” here was first performed in 2007, but it’s based on a previous version I’d done. My first version of “The Nutcracker” was in 1980, I think, for Tampa Ballet. When I became director of Eglevsky Ballet, they needed a new “Nutcracker,” so that version was based on a European style of “The Nutcracker.” This production is loosely based on that. 

IDS: When you first choreographed the show, did you feel any pressure for it to live up to the massive legacy already existing? 

Vernon: No, I don’t think so. I just wanted it to be as good as it could be and put my own touches on it to tell the story clearly and choreograph it so it was suitable for the dancers in the company I was working for. 

IDS: You’ve restaged this show numerous times. What impacts how it changes? 

Vernon: I think the world, technology, what I see and other Nutcrackers. I try to stay abreast of the feel of the moment in the art form. I personally feel that “The Nutcracker” is a timeless story. I think the essence of the magic — in the true sense of the word — and the music and the musicality are the most important things about the ballet. 

IDS: So, what’s something you try to impart upon the audience with this show? 

Vernon: Well, I just hope they enjoy it. I think “The Nutcracker” has depth to it, in the sense of not just the story but also the music. It really is the perfect way to introduce the season of Christmas. 

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