Dance, Dance-Theatre Review Print

Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker Keeps on Giving

December 14, 2007 - Raleigh, NC:

The familiar glories of Carolina Ballet's annual Nutcracker performances have been well documented on CVNC in previous reviews by Kate Dobbs Ariail. Her remarks bear re-reading for their insights into the physical production, the ballet's background and the dancers' performances (see her review links at the bottom of the page).

One of the great pluses of the CB production (now in its seventh season) is the live orchestra performing Tchaikovsky's evocative score. For the millions who know only the "Nutcracker Suite" (the ballet's overture, the Act I march, and six numbers from Act II), the full score can be a revelation.

In 1892, Tchaikovsky was at the height of his mature, creative powers when the Mariinsky Theatre's great ballet master, Marius Petipa, gave him a detailed scenario of Nutcracker based on a story by E. T. A. Hoffmann. Although the composer did not particularly like it, he still came up with pieces perfectly crafted for each moment of the storyline and for the individual character dances.

Tchaikovsky creates a special sound world for Nutcracker with intricate and unusual combinations of instruments. His brilliant use of woodwinds can conjure marching soldiers, scurrying mice, whirling snowflakes, or unfolding flowers. When the full forces of the orchestra are unleashed (the growing Christmas tree, Clara's arrival at the Land of Sweets) the effects are grandly exhilarating. And there's the composer's famous first use of the celesta for the Sugarplum Fairy's gossamer music.

The ballet world does not consider its musical scores sacrosanct. Many Nutcracker choreographers have added or swapped out other Tchaikovsky music - even George Balanchine, whose 1954 Nutcracker at New York City Ballet is acknowledged as the impetus for the many dozens of annual Nutcrackers in the U.S. over the last half century. Choreographers also have assigned music meant for one character to another, depending on the interpretation or re-imagining of the story.

Carolina Ballet choreographer Robert Weiss adheres quite closely to the music and story, employing the complete score without substitution or cuts. His only change places the famous "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" near the opening of the second act when Clara arrives in the Land of Sweets, instead of keeping it within the pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. In this, Weiss mimics Balanchine's version, which Weiss danced while at the New York City Ballet.

The North Carolina Symphony played for the opening weekend (the second week is a combination of NCS members and other area musicians). Al Sturgis, who has led all the performances from the premiere year, certainly has the piece in his veins now, ably matching the tempos to dancers' requirements. At the December 14th premiere in Memorial Auditorium the orchestra played with appropriate Romantic lushness, quiet warm or vivacious charm, as needed. Although these musicians probably could play this music blindfolded, there still was a feeling of tentativeness and scrambling in a number of spots. Financial considerations prevented a dress rehearsal with the orchestra, which likely accounted for the minor slips Friday.

Weiss, like so many others over the years, presents a modified Balanchine production. This is not a criticism, as Balanchine's creation has an overriding feel of rightness. While other choreographers have explored the budding sexuality of Clara and the darker sides of Drosselmeyer, Weiss is committed to a straightforward telling of the story. Weiss uses a young dancer for Clara and, although the Nutcracker Prince is an adult male dancer, he does not do any extensive dancing with her.

The December 14th cast included many familiar faces. Pablo Javier Perez's diminutive stature is perfect for the Nutcracker Prince, notable in his recounting of the battle with the Mouse King. Lilyan Vigo's Sugar Plum Fairy and Alain Molina's Cavalier made an ideal paring, with her elegant precision and his virile support. Margaret Severin-Hansen's Butterfly (in the "Waltz of the Flowers") and Margot K. Martin's lead Ribbon Candy dancer brightened the stage with their beaming smiles and joyous personas. Attila Bongar's Northwind (a Weiss addition to the "Waltz of the Snowflakes") displayed his usual confidence and bravura. Lucy Barreto's Clara was a winsome characterization, even with little actual dancing to perform.

The production uses a lot of young children, not only for Act I's party scene and the Mouse King battle, but also at the opening of Act II, and for Mother Ginger's children later on. What is gained on the "cute factor" scale (and in family members buying tickets) is somewhat diminished by a loss of precision and clarity in those scenes (which is why other companies often cast older, more highly trained dancers for those sections).

Still, only a curmudgeon would complain about this perennially entertaining presentation, especially with Jeff A. R. Jones' stunning settings and technical effects, Judanna Lynn's rich, lustrous costumes and Ross Kolman's ever-changing, dramatic lighting. This production more than repays the ticket price and should be welcome for many years to come.

For additional ticket information and calendar of performances see Carolina Ballet['s website].

Earlier CB Nutcracker reviews by Kate Dobbs Ariail:
2006 -
2005 -
2004 -
2003 -