People sometimes ask me why I like to re-read books or see movies again and again. The short answer is that it is very difficult fully to take in the complexity and richness of the work in a single pass, and besides, why not experience the pleasure again? But when it comes to a live performance – music, drama, dance – the answer is even easier: One can attend again a performance of the same name and by the same company, but one never sees or hears the same show twice.

This happy truth was reaffirmed in the first performance of the Christmas run of the Nutcracker , as presented by Carolina Ballet and the North Carolina Symphony in Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium on December 19. While the show was very similar to last year’s, some of the dances had been tweaked, and different dancers filled some of the key roles. Perhaps even more important, the NC Symphony was in the pit, rather than members of the Winston-Salem Symphony. The NCS has become used to working with Alfred Sturgis, who conducted them through a fresh and spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s music that evaporated the tatty pall of ennui from the well-known score. What an achievement, to recapture this music – so well known in the form of the famous Suite – from the barons of muzak – to strip the saccharine from its strings, burnish up its brass, and free the woodwinds to sing their haunting notes among the pounding percussion. The orchestra was excellent in all the moods of the piece, from playful to frightening to ethereally beautiful.

As were the dancers. This year’s party scene seemed to have more real dancing for the children and less stage business, and they all danced like they were having fun. Clara – Audrey Hagopian, who last year danced as a soldier in the battle scene – had a delicate charm throughout. She was very pretty with Herr Drosselmeyer’s nephew/The Nutcracker, danced again this season by the lithe and buoyant Pablo Javier Perez. Marin Boireu makes a wonderful, elfin Drosselmeyer, and he has gotten very smooth with his magic tricks. His grand toys come to life marvelously: Kyra Homeres danced the Toy Sugar Plum with just the right mix of grace and stiffness, and newcomer Radoslaw Kokoszka made a dashing cavalier. But Christopher Rudd rather stole the scene with his explosive leaps and turns as the Toy Soldier.

The great battle scene between the Rat King with his mice troupe and the Nutcracker with his soldiers wasn’t quite as dynamic and dark as it might have been, but the gorgeous dance that ends Act I was fabulous. The Northwind and a dozen Snowflakes swirl through the Land of Snow – now fierce and stinging, now delicate and caressing. Atilla Bongar was superb as the Northwind, jumping and spinning in icy grandeur. This is an instance of a change in dancers really affecting the tone of the piece. Last year I saw Mikhail Nikitine in that role, doing the same things, but Nikitine projects such warmth that he melted rather than animated the glittery chill of the Northwind.

In their classic costumes the color of dusk reflected from snow, moving through the graceful sequences of Robert Weiss’ choreography, the Northwind and the Snowflakes, led by Heather Eberhardt, Lara O’Brien and Claudia Schreiber, embody a dream of pure cool beauty unmarked by human struggles. This dance and its music would be beautiful without great costumes, scenery and lighting, but with those things the Land of Snow is a jewel of art within the larger work. In this scene more than any other in the Nutcracker , you realize how vital the contributions of costumer Judanna Lynn, scene designer Jeff A.R. Jones, and lighting genius Ross Kolman really are to the enormous pleasure of this ballet.

The second act, with its riot of exotic candies and coffees, flowers and butterfly (the delightful Margaret Severin-Hansen), is the benevolent gift of the Sugar Plum Fairy. All the treats were delicious, most of all the Sugar Plum herself, Lilyan Vigo. Her opening solo dance was pretty much perfect, and the closing dance with Alain Molina as her Cavalier had some breathtaking moments. Vigo is long-limbed, slender and delicate in appearance, while Molina has a very powerful barrel chest and big head – they look dramatic together without even dancing, but when he lifts and catches her in some of Weiss’s more trust-demanding moves, the effect is really thrilling.

The Carolina Ballet gives us something far greater than a workhorse production of a seasonal amusement. This Nutcracker is an evolving work of art, one that doesn’t give up all its secrets in a single viewing.