The Nutcrackerballet has become such a holiday tradition that it has very nearly become a cliché, and although thousands attend each year, its pleasures are treated rather dismissively by Those In the Know. It is far from being art, its detractors say, as they pass it off as the stereotypical bourgeois diversion, unimportant fluff. It merely provides a revenue stream (thanks to the hoi polloi) that enables the ballet companies to do their more significant work during the rest of the year – if the ballet can even be considered a significant art form. And who can hear the music any more, now that it has been so demeaned and trivialized in every commercial setting from Thanksgiving on? Oh yes, everyone knows the Nutcracker – as elevator music.

Anyone who thinks that there is no art to be had in either Tchaikovsky’s well-known music or in the dances that are set to it has not attended the Carolina Ballet’s stunning production. And anyone who thinks that if you’ve seen one Nutcracker , you’ve seen them all, should try viewing two or three of the available choices next year.

I saw three companies dance the Nutcracker this season: the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, the Triangle Youth Ballet in Durham’s Carolina Theatre, and the North Carolina Dance Theatre in Charlotte’s Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. The three productions were remarkably varied, and not just in the dancers’ level of skill. All three costumed Clara and the other young girls in annoying and ridiculous pantalets, but in most things they were surprisingly different in approach and in the tone of the story.

The Triangle Youth Ballet (TYB) version, choreographed by Lauren Lorentz de Haas, was straightforward, simply playful and un-nuanced, staying well away from Clara’s dream’s erotic edges, remaining in the territory of sentimentality. The North Carolina Dance Theater (NCDT) work was choreographed by Salvatore Aiello, the troupe’s former artistic director (now deceased). Aiello torqued the story towards family psychodrama, loading it with plenty of sexual overtones but keeping it devoid of any deep feeling with injections of humor.

The Carolina Ballet (CB) version, choreographed by Robert Weiss, while not unhumorous and certainly not unplayful, has a dark rich quality that makes their production much more than a pleasant entertainment for young children and the parents of young dancers. Oh, it gleams and sparkles, but all that light is made meaningful by the mysterious and the strange, the exotic, and even the frightening. While the CB production is not flawless, it was by far the most satisfying of the three I viewed.

The first flaw is something that initially looked like a charming idea. An enormous book appears onstage and is opened to a title page. Oh, you think, this is the old cinema trick, introducing you to the story with words before the curtain rises. But no. As the pages turned, it quickly became apparent that this was more analogous to the current horrid practice of running advertisements in the movie trailers. The real purpose of the book was to tout Progress Energy and other lesser luminaries’ support for Carolina Ballet. Those people have already had their names plastered everywhere else: They and Carolina Ballet need to remember where the line is between philanthropy and advertising and keep the advertising out of the production. The pages of the book did eventually reveal the story, but that only encouraged the parents of the hundreds too young to read for themselves into a sibilant whispering that seriously diminished the possibility of listening to the music of the Overture.

Not that the Overture sounded that great the day I was there. Because of scheduling overlaps, the North Carolina Symphony did not play all performances of the Nutcracker this year, and the musicians I heard had been brought over from Winston-Salem and Greensboro. It was a small orchestra, and while the musicians were competent enough, they were far from inspired and the sound was rather thin. Alfred Sturgis conducted, and he gradually livened them up – the second act sounded much better than the first – but the music was the weak element in the production, and it was not at all what we’ve come to expect when watching the Carolina Ballet.

But all was forgiven once the giant book had been whisked away and the curtain rose on the wondrous scenery by Jeff A.R. Jones, illumined by Ross Kolman’s extraordinary lighting work. Weiss chooses to play Clara as a child just on the verge of adolescence, and to have such a child dance the part, which limits Clara’s dances but to my mind makes the most pleasing story. This Clara was danced by Michelle Barreto, who was just lovely. She had remarkable presence, and moved with a relaxed grace. You sensed she was having a wonderful time. Marin Boireu was a fantastic Herr Drosselmeyer, striking just the right balance between benignity and danger, and doing great magic tricks. The effervescent and lovable Pablo Javier Perez did a fine job as Drosselmeyer’s nephew/the Nutcracker Prince – he is boyish enough that he looked a suitable romantic object for the innocent Clara, and he combined capering with courtliness in a most beguiling fashion.

Weiss has a weakness for extended bouts of fussy stage business that are often unnecessary and sometimes downright hokey. I think he intends for them to explicate the story, but often the viewer just wishes the dancers would get on with the business of dancing. The Nutcraker ‘s party scene suffers a little from this tendency, but when the real dancing begins, it does so most dramatically. Herr Drosselmeyer has presented his gifts: the toy Sugar Plum fairy, the toy cavalier, and finally the toy soldier – the stupendous Christopher Rudd, in a dashing uniform – who comes alive in a martial dance that had the crowd roaring with pleasure.

Then we enter dreamland with Clara, and so comes the great onslaught of the mice and their Rat King. Costumed so that they are very large indeed, the mice had the little girl beside me squeaking in fear and jumping into her mother’s lap. The Rat King had me squeaking. They were fabulous. And here in this scene we see two of Weiss’s great strengths. Once he gets his little stage business out of the way, he is masterful in his use of space – he utilizes the entire stage dynamically, painting it with powerful large strokes of motion that are absolutely thrilling. The fight scene between the mice and the toy soldiers is so well carried out that you actually have a moment of doubt about who will win, and this is entirely due to Weiss’s acute spatial sensitivity. It is almost as if he can change the density of the air with the way he positions and moves his dancers.

He is aided in this not only by his professional company but also by the large numbers of young dancers he uses. In this scene, the soldiers battling the mice are diminutive dancers – toy soldier size, much smaller than the mice. In this production, children are of course particularly appropriate and effective, allowing Weiss even more ways to play with scale and size contrasts, but I have been consistently impressed with the way he incorporates children and young dancers into much of his work. Their presence gives an unusual depth to the ballets and probably does more than anything else could to ensure the ongoing life of ballet in this area.

Once the Rat King is vanquished, we come to The Land of Snow. Here the Northwind plays among the Snowflakes, to the delight of our hearts. This is one of the loveliest dances in the ballet repertoire, no matter how it is choreographed, but here it was perfection. There was not a design on the stage or a single movement that was anything less than a match to the pure and sprightly sounds of the music, nor could the costumes have been more pleasing, or the lighting more apropos. Life doesn’t get much better than this – watching beautiful dancers moving through beautiful motions, distilling their strength into grace and joy. There was no doubting the art here.

The Northwind was danced by Mikhail Nikitine, not a small man, who used his forceful presence gently, happy to play with the eleven pretty Snowflakes, who were led by the delightful Margaret Severin-Hansen, Lindsay Purrington, and Margot Martin. I could have watched those three for hours, and fortunately they re-appeared together in the second act, as Ribbon Candies in the Land of Sweets.

It was a good thing they and the rest of the dancers in the second act were so sweet, because Melissa Podcasy, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Carolina Ballet’s prima ballerina, was rather sour. She danced as well as one can while looking peevish, stiff and bored, but it was clear she wasn’t having any fun. And if you can’t have fun dancing the Sugar Plum, you shouldn’t be dancing it. It takes all the romance out of one of the great romantic dances. Podcasy didn’t manage a pleasant expression until the end of the final dance, and even then it was more like, Thank God, this is almost over…. Most of us wouldn’t feel that way about being leaped and lifted and twirled by the splendid Timour Bourtasenkov. Despite his partner’s attitude, he seemed to be having a wonderful time, launching himself through the air with those magnificent stage-shrinking jumps.

As delectable as all the candies, coffee, tea and chocolate were, it was the tiny gingerbread people who stole the show. They were completely joyful, and – despite the above-mentioned flaws – so were we when we left the theater.

I didn’t have such a happy glow when I left the Belk Theater in Charlotte. That is a good venue – excellent sight lines, nice acoustics – and the Charlotte Symphony under the direction of Albert-George Schram played beautifully. Their sound was warm and emotive and wonderfully romantic. And there was some fine dancing, even though I didn’t enjoy the scripting of the story. But the audience was so badly behaved that they marred the experience. They were coming in late, they were getting up and down and coming and going, but most of all they were talking throughout the entire performance.

When one could concentrate on the stage, there was some very pretty dancing to be seen. Aiello was a quite different choreographer from Weiss, you might say more classical, and certainly less Balanchine-influenced. There were several graceful corps de ballet dances, including the Land of Snow piece, that were extremely elegant. Throughout, we saw a great deal of pointe work, lots of effortless extensions of very long legs, lots of pirouettes and leaping turns. Notable was the exotic Arabian Jewel Box dance, as performed by Traci Gilchrist in toe shoes and a belly-dancing costume. A lot of pretty stuff, fun to watch, but not terribly affecting.

Because Clara was danced by Mia Cunningham, a mature ballerina, she had a lot more to do than Weiss’s younger Clara, and she did a lot of it on her toes, including some interesting dances with Herr Drosselmeyer (Benjamin Kubie, manic and maniacal). Aiello had given Clara an older sister, Anna, it was Anna (Kati Hanlon Mayo) who danced the pas de deux near the end with her affianced cadet, rather than the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. The excision of the Sugar Plum from the story so profoundly irritated me that, despite its merits, I wouldn’t recommend this Nutcracker to anyone who has ever known and loved it elsewhere.

The big surprise of my three viewing experiences was how enjoyable the Triangle Youth Ballet’s production turned out to be. They often crowd the stage with too many dancers, and any comparison between TYB’s and Carolina Ballet’s production values would be inappropriate (I will say that TYB really needs to improve their lighting); but taking TYB on its own terms, as a community effort of volunteers and dancers-in-training, their Nutcracker is quite impressive. The sets are good, the costumes more than good, and the aplomb and even panache of the dancers sometimes astonishing. There weren’t enough boys to go around, so quite a few girls were playing boys, and they carried it off with an air. The one teen-age male dancer was Eric Uphoff, who outdid himself, dancing the Snow King, Spanish Chocolate and the Russian dancer with great brio. He doesn’t have complete control, but he has plenty of verve. Erin Harrington was a graceful Clara, and Brandi Flippin, Kaitlyn Moise and Mallary Webb stood out among both the flowers and the snowflakes. Elizabeth Dias’ incredible sinuous flexibility made the Arabian Coffee dance into a truly amazing interlude. And Crystal Shackelford gave a marvelous interpretation of Columbine, the magical doll among Herr Drosselmeyer’s gifts in the opening party scene.

But the real joy of the production came from the dancers of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier, Rosita Adamo and Seth Coluzzi. From the first beat, they were completely in the dance and radiant with it. The pas de deux, particularly, gave them some very ambitious moves and lifts, and most of the time they looked as natural as breathing, although occasionally you could see them thinking about what they needed to do next. But it was thrilling that clearly they were out there at the very edge of their technique giving it every thing they had with their whole hearts. They chanced every risk with exultant smiles, and won them all. Sometimes passion can be more important to art than great talent or technique’s refined accomplishments. It is usually more rewarding to watch than boredom, no matter how accomplished.

[Carolina Ballet’s Nutcracker continues through 12/29 – see our calendar or the company’s website, , for times and ticket information.]

Kate Dobbs Ariail has written extensively about the arts since 1988. She holds an MFA from Syracuse University and lives in Durham, where she is currently engaged in building a not-for-profit art bronze casting facility.