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George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet spent more than $20,000 on a Christmas tree set for The Nutcracker in its 1954 premiere. Because of the expense, his finance committee chair, Morton Baum, asked Balanchine if they could somehow do the ballet without the tree, to which Balanchine replied, "The ballet is the tree."
This point was well taken when watching Charlotte Ballet's The Nutcracker on opening night at the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. Charlotte Ballet's Nutcracker, choreographed by former artistic director of Charlotte Ballet and former New York City Ballet star Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, not only has that same famous growing Christmas tree that is always a wonder but also a number of dazzling sets by Alain Vaës, a frequent designer for the New York City Ballet. The audience feels transported as they travel alongside Clara and her Prince from the sparkling Land of Snow to the scrumptious Land of Sweets.
The sets are accentuated by gorgeous costumes designed by Holly Hynes, who has created numerous costumes for the New York City Ballet, the Paris Opera Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre, among many others. From the angels' long hoop skirts that graze the floor, making the angels appear to be floating, to the pink blossoming tulle skirts of the flowers, Hynes's costumes are lovely and clever. These sets and costumes are new: Charlotte Ballet premiered them in 2016.
The Nutcracker featured members of Charlotte Ballet's whole team: the main professional company, the second company, and members of their Ballet Academy and Reach program (the ballet's need-based scholarship program for elementary-aged kids in Charlotte). The children danced the roles of mice, soldiers, and sweets. Particular standouts from the children were those accompanying Mother Ginger (Belle Powell, on this evening), the flamboyant gingerbread woman whose children enter and exit from her travelling gingerbread house. In general, all of the children, including Annabella Bernard as Clara, danced with lots of spirit. Of the principal dancers, Sugar Plum Fairy Alessandra Ball James was supple, secure, and elegant, as usual, demonstrating maturity and trust in partnering with cavalier Josh Hall. Peter Mazurowski (Tiramisu), too, is always a crowd-pleaser, with top-notch technique and grandiose stage presence.
The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, conducted this evening by Kellen Gray, provided Tchaikovsky's score. Having live music is always a treat (I wish the ballet and the orchestra would collaborate more!), though this evening there seemed to be some hesitancy in performance. Perhaps it was just opening night uncertainties, but the orchestra seemed a little constrained and lacking in pizzazz. Tchaikovsky's score is lush and grand; it's dynamic and it builds, moving the dancers as well as the audience. The orchestra could have used more dynamic contrast, especially in sections like the snow scene and the waltz of the flowers, where there are large groups of dancers onstage, moving in unison. Dancers need a push from the orchestra and unfortunately, a lack of energy in the orchestra was reflected in the energy of the dancers who, though always technically proficient, often seemed to be holdng slightly back.
There were exceptions to this in the orchestra and dancers, specifically during the Arabian coffee sequence, danced this evening by Raven Barkley and James Kopecky, in which dancers and musicians seemed truly in sync and therefore captivating. Kopecky and Barkley performed difficult lifts and partnering steps as well as impressive solo moments. At one point, Kopecky presented his arms in a circle and Barkley jumped through; he caught her there and flipped her upside down, holding her above his head.
Overall, it's hard to go wrong with The Nutcracker: the beautiful costumes and sets, a gorgeous score, and the interesting and diverse choreography perfectly represent all of the magical things it sets out to represent. As always, this production was a joy to see.
Balanchine was right, not necessarily that it's all about the tree, but that it is all about the magic, the colors, and the experience. There are plenty of more opportunities to experience it: Charlotte Ballet will continue The Nutcracker through Dec. 23. See our sidebar for details.