There are few things in life one can depend on, but one can be absolutely certain that each Christmas holiday season will bring many productions of the Nutcracker, set to Tchaikovsky’s music. No matter their level of skill or artistry, all of these productions provide a good deal of pleasure, but one doesn’t really expect aesthetic thrills and chills from this show. So, how wonderful it was to be surprised in this regard by two versions seen in one 24-hour period.

This year’s crop of Nuts also provides the opportunity to look at North Carolina’s two professional ballet companies in a head-to-head and toe-to-toe comparison. The Carolina Ballet, in Raleigh, has had great success for several years with artistic director Robert Weiss’Nutcracker, which uses a young girl for the part of Clara. But up until this season, Charlotte’s North Carolina Dance Theatre has used a professional dancer as Clara in choreography by the company’s former artistic director. For this season, however, current artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux created a new version, with a young Clara, so that the two companies’ versions of the dance are more directly comparable.

For the December 15th performance by the Carolina Ballet in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, the ever-more-accomplished North Carolina Symphony of the Grant Llewellyn era was in the pit. The NCS only plays for a few of the many ballet performances each season; if you care about music, make sure that you choose one of those if you attend. There can’t be many musical compositions that have been so degraded by decades of commercial abuse as this score. Yet under the baton of Alfred Sturgis, who kept up a brisk pace, the music was completely revivified and absolutely glorious in its unabashed romance. I had never heard it played so beautifully, so vivaciously, with so much color, such rich texture, and so little sentimentality. It would have been a great concert even if the curtain had never risen on the dancers.

The Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, under Alan Yamamoto, performed for the North Carolina Dance Theatre’s December 16th matinee in the Belk Theater of the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center. With the indivisible grandeur of the NCS performance still echoing in my head, the CSO sounded thin, reedy, lacking in balance, and a little erratic. The music was an accompaniment to the superb dancing, rather than a generative force. Still, the CSO did very well in sections, especially the “Waltz of the Flowers” and the pas de deux music near the end.

In many ways, their Nutcrackers are remarkably similar, but the first minutes of the NCDT performance revealed one of the important differences between that company and the Carolina Ballet. Although Weiss has a larger number of company dancers, Bonnefoux has the ability to put far more bodies on the stage than Weiss does—and sometimes that really increases the energy generated by the art. Not only is the NCDT a much older, more established and financially stable company, it has a second company, NCDT2, from which to draw, and perhaps even more important, it has a thriving school. Every one of the several dozen children and young teens in Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker came from the NCDT school, and overall they were more advanced as dancers than the children in Raleigh. And because of that, there is rather less stage business and rather more dancing in the NCDT production.

On the 16th, Clara was danced, on pointe, by the teen-aged Patterson Floberg, and she and her friends had plenty of dancing to do. Giving the role to a budding young woman, rather than to an undeveloped young girl (or an adult) makes sense of the Nutcracker’s “dream of the sweets of love” theme and brings the fable into sharper focus, which is tightened even further by having the Nutcracker/Prince danced by a boy of her own age (the touching and talented David Morse) and Herr Drosselmeyer danced by a young man (Sasha Janes, yum) rather than the older character dancer Weiss uses. Weiss’ younger Clara (danced on the 15th with unusually crisp footwork by Brodie Wray) has many charms, but she is a child in pantalets, innocent of the sexual mysteries that give E.T.A. Hoffman’s story its edge, and her moment of power—knocking out the Rat King with her slipper—seems more accidental than purposeful.

Weiss and Bonnefoux are very different kinds of storytellers. With Weiss, the story progresses in discrete steps; with Bonnefoux, all is flow. He is also far more willing to place the shadows around the bright figures (and the highlights on the dark ones)—a critical aspect of any fable’s success. He emphasizes the erotic component of the Nutcracker in his astonishing duet for Coffee, which is usually danced (sensually, but alone) only by a woman. On the 16th, this provided a showcase for the very remarkable Randolph Ward, in his first season with NCDT, and Alessandra Ball, who can say more with her stunningly beautiful long back than many dancers can with their full bodies. Placing this hot cup of coffee immediately following Anna Gerberich’s supersweet and demure Marzipan only increased its impact.

Where Bonnefoux seems naturally inclined to emotional openness and a freer physicality within the ballet syntax, Weiss tends to be more abstract and formal, more controlled. Sometimes this serves us very well indeed. Although the dancers seemed to be struggling a little with the brisk tempo on the 15th, Weiss’ delicate dance of the snowflakes remains from year to year in memory an exquisite dream of cool perfection, and conveys more movingly the magic of transformation, of alternative states of being, than Bonnefoux’s brut version.

No matter how much we may enjoy everything leading to them, it is the dances for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier that are the big pay-off for Romantic viewers. Here was the contrast made most clear between Bonnefoux’s bold preference for proud strength and power and Weiss’taste for equal strength dressed in decorous delicacy. The Carolina Ballet’s tiny, weightless Margaret Severin-Hansen and broad-chested Alain Molina dancing Weiss’ pas de deux, borne along on the great gleaming swellings of the music, were almost unbearably beautiful. But then, so were strong, golden Mia Cunningham and Vladimir Lut of NCDT. At both performances, tears streamed down my face.

That is the miracle of ballet. More than any other kind of dance, it has the power to peel back the burred husks of the heart, which can quiver unprotected for a few moments in an atmosphere of beauty, in the air of change and possibility, danger and redemption, like the drop of blood pricked out by Aurora’s spindle. That we in North Carolina are regularly offered this miracle by such different artists almost surpasses belief.

Note: For a review of yet another NC Nutcracker — in Asheville — click here.