Long before every Tar Heel village and town aspired to produce its own version of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, the (then) NC School of the Arts School of Dance created a significant ballet tradition with a gem of a show choreographed, after Ivanov, by Sonja Tyven and Robert Lindgren. For many of those who saw it, often repeatedly, this lovely version established (and then re-established) the standard of excellence in our state, setting the bar (or, if you prefer, barre), literally and figuratively, for Carolina residents enamored of this perennial holiday favorite. (It wasn't always so - interest in this ballet was largely fired in America by George Balanchine's 1954 production, a version that is, in large measure, still danced by the New York City Ballet; readers may see a "Live from Lincoln Center" telecast of this year's edition on UNC-TV on December 14 and 15.)
That Tyven-Lindgren show was retired in Winton-Salem several years back in favor of an upgraded but still traditional version staged by Ethan Stiefel, with choreography by Nigel Burley, Warren Conover, Susan McCullough, and Stiefel, too - the latter has since moved on to the Royal New Zealand Ballet but his presence in NC remains thanks to Nutcracker, which has begun its annual run of Stevens Center performances. This is an all-UNCSA event, proceeds from which benefit scholarship programs in the schools of Dance, Design & Production, and Music.
The place was packed, with children out-numbering dowagers by a large measure - perhaps Nutcracker is a key to the much lamented graying of audiences for the arts - or maybe this is now just a richly-honored tradition.
Only rarely were there any hints that the orchestra was comprised of students, so smooth and polished was the playing under the adept leadership of Pittsburgh Ballet's Music Director and ABT's Principal Conductor Charles Barker. There were a few balance issues - the (amplified) chorus (prepared by Jaimie Allbritten), and the celesta, too, began far too loudly - but in nearly every other respect the music - which is, after all, the basis of the entire show - emerged from the pit in all its requisite radiance.
The production is truly lovely, with attractive sets, period costumes (with some particularly appealing Russian touches), and very well-managed stage business (with the singular exception of a weak powder charge for the cannon).* The eyes of the folks near us got bigger and bigger as the Christmas tree grew in size, and all of the (comparatively) lesser but nonetheless significant elements of the show worked seamlessly without ever impeding the flow of the music.
Oh, and the dancing! Well, the Saturday matinee featured the entire company without benefit of any of the guest artists who will grace future presentations. Experience has shown that the dramatic effects of pure ensemble performances are often superior theatrical events, for people concentrate on the overall story line rather than waiting, sometimes breathlessly, for the "stars." That was certainly the case this time, as the principals - Merissa Slattery and Connor Scott Cohen (Clara and Sascha), Tommy Burnett (Drosselmeyer), Andrew Harper (Mouse King), Haley Miller and Hayden Stark (Snow Queen and King), and Daina Gingras and Josh Hall (Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier) consistently worked dancing magic devoid of Las Vegas glitz at, to borrow a phrase, every turn. The rest of the participants - the Silverhauses, the guests, the entertainers at the party, the bear and the mice, the soldiers, the snowflakes, the angels, the parade of glorious and distinctive character dancers in the divertissements, and the flowers - were uniformly excellent, and all meshed virtually without blemish into the jewel-like setting that is this superb production. (The casts vary throughout the run.)
For those who will experience Nutcracker for the first time, bear in mind that the party scene with all the kids (in Winston-Salem, they are mostly from the UNCSA's Preparatory Dance Program) constitutes the first half of Act I. Tableau II is the battle of the mice and the soldiers, followed by the first of two true "corps de ballet" sequences, featuring the snowflakes. Act II takes place in the Land of Sweets, where Clara and Sascha are feted by the international dancers, capped by the second traditional ensemble ballet, for the flowers. Tchaikovsky excelled in powerfully moving finales, and Nutcracker's is exemplary. The UNCSA's Grand Pas de Deux featured magnificent dancing and music, too, richly realized, and the return of everyone from earlier in the act makes for one of the most colorful and awe-inspiring tableaux one is likely to encounter anywhere.
If a traditional Nutcracker with all the right fixin's is on your menu this season, you can hardly go wrong in Winton-Salem!
*To give credit where credit is due, the new costumes are by Kathryn E. Grillo and Carolyn Fay, lighting, by Brad Field, and "new scenic elements," by Howard C. Jones. The stage manager is Mitchell Anderson, tech director, Bill Volz, and artistic supervisor. Douglas Gawriljuk.
The show continues through December 18. For details, see the sidebar.
For a review of NCDT's Charlotte production of Nutcracker, click here.
And readers may see this production, in a performance taped in 2010, on UNC-TV, on 12/24-25. For details, see the sidebar.