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After a week of winter wonderland kept most of us indoors, out of the wet snow, the visions of sugar plums and the temptation of Tchaikovsky overwhelmed the Scrooge in me and another thousand spectators who thronged to the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina's School of the Arts' annual presentation of The Nutcracker, a dozen performances ending Sunday, December 15.
E. T. A. Hofmann's darkly romantic story of a girl who dreams of being in love with the nutcracker her God-father has given her was modified (and mollified!) by Alexander Dumas before being set to music by Tchaikovsky in 1892 and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The current UNCSA version of the ballet was created in 2009 by Ethan Stiefel and is directed by Jared Redick, Assistant Dean of Ballet. With the exception of two guest dancers from the Houston Ballet, Yuriko Kajiya and Connor Walsh, who dance only on December 12 and 13, all the dancers are students of the UNCSA School of Dance.
Ms. Kajiya is a superb dancer, slender and graceful yet strong. The words "symmetrical and delicately balanced" came to mind as she danced the cat-like steps at the beginning of the famous Sugar Plum Fairy, accompanied by the heavenly celesta. Her partner, Connor Walsh, tall, dark, and handsome, a powerhouse of a man, offered strong entrechats in the Tarantella and was a strong partner in the many lifts in the famous "Pink Pas de deux."
The orchestra, composed only of students of the UNCSA School of Music, was admirably conducted by Brian Cole, Dean of the School of Music. Several sections of the ballet were shortened (overtures to both acts and some of the party scene), and the tempos were otherwise brisk, even daring. Apart from some intonation problems in the brass, the orchestra sounded good, with special mention to harpist Grace Wepner Ludtke for her brilliant cadenza at the beginning of the popular "Waltz of the Flowers."
Unfortunately, the Waltz of the Flowers has lost the excitement of the Petipa/Ivanov choreography whose impressive precision of the dozen dancers all moving in perfect unison was always so impressive.
Dance students Katie Lovejoy and her partner Christopher Crawford were excellent in the first act "Snow Pas de deux," although the choreographer has packed so much movement into the Andante that it takes on a frenetic aspect.
Kudos to the tech department for the spectacular expanding Christmas tree and the ensuing scene change! And the Mice, especially the tiniest of them, made for moments of hilarity.
If there is a grain of truth in the mantra that "practice makes perfect" it would certainly be evident in the high precision world of ballet, whose steps and choreography are studied, analyzed, memorized, and passed down through generations of dancers, ballet-mistresses and task-masters. Mastery of form takes precedence over spontaneity and tradition over invention, at least in classical ballet. By the time a dancer is 18 years old, he or she will have already completed the "10,000 hours" of preparation made famous in pop-psychology.
There are evening performances through Saturday plus matinees on Saturday and Sunday. See the sidebar for details!