Before the curtain goes up – even before conductor Roger Kalia steps into the pit to lead the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra in the Overture – North Carolina Dance Theatre‘s annual presentation of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker is logistically impressive. One of four different adult casts is dressing for such signature roles as the Snow Queen, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and various divertissements of Act II, depending on which of the eleven performances you see. Those eleven performances are divvied up three ways for Herr Drosselmeyer, the Toy Soldier, and the Mouse King, while key children’s roles like Clara, Fritz, and the great civil war between the Mice and the Nutcracker’s Soldiers are merely double-cast. Among the major cast members, only the Nutcracker himself, Tyler Haritan, is scheduled to dance every performance, moonlighting as Clara’s cousin. As my wife Sue and I waited at Belk Theater for the lights to go down, NCDT associate artistic director Patricia McBride told us that we’d need to attend four performances if we wanted to see all the dancers, but she may have been underestimating the intricacy of it all. Sure enough, McBride was proven wrong at intermission when one of the featured performers said she wouldn’t be well enough to dance the lead Rose in the “Waltz of the Flowers.”

Though the main dancers seen on opening night seem to change almost completely every year, either because of turnover in the troupe or because dancers have switched spots in the rotations, I’ve long since stopped worrying whether this year’s adult frontliners will measure up against last year’s. Sarah Hayes Watson has been perfecting her elegant line for five full seasons with NCDT before ascending to the coveted opening night slot as the Sugar Plum Fairy, so you can be sure she has faced thousands of cherubic children before in this plum role. Josh Hall as the Toy Soldier and Chocolate, Gregory DeArmond as Tea in the “Chinese Dance,” and David Morse, as Clara’s father and the Sugar Plum’s Cavalier, are also familiar with Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux‘s choreography from previous seasons. Even when NCDT newcomers or members of the NCDT 2 satellite troupe were thrust into the spotlight, they excelled. Right before NCDT newcomer Lázló Major spun like a barber pole as Candy Cane, Amanda Smith, also in her first NCDT season, slithered deliciously with Ben Ingel, an NCDT 2 member, as Coffee in the “Arabian Dance.” Other NCDT 2 members in the starting lineup included Lacey Thomas as the Toy Doll in and Hannes Van Wasserhove as the Mouse King in Act I. Elizabeth Truell represented NCDT 2 as Tiramasu in Act II, followed by the complete Marzipan trio, Christina LaForgia with Courtney Holland and Alexis Matthesen.

If that weren’t sufficient demonstration of the company’s depth and dependability, we had the grace under pressure of Chelsea Dumas in her first NCDT season. After a glittering stint as the Snow Queen opposite Jordan Leeper as her chivalrous King, Dumas expected to be partnered with Hall in Chocolate. Then she learned at intermission that Anna Gerberich wasn’t up to performing Rose. Watson, the other option listed in the program, was otherwise engaged, so Dumas – more likely slipping into Gerberich’s costume than the tall Watson’s – stepped in for the climactic “Waltz of the Flowers.” Meanwhile, fourth-season trouper Melissa Anduiza, scheduled for Chocolate at the Saturday matinee, filled in for Dumas on Friday night partnered with Hall in the “Spanish Dance.” Dumas was luminous as Rose, seemingly as proficient a substitute as Watson would have been.

So my customary confidence in NCDT – and NCDT 2 – was justified even under trying circumstances. The real test comes in the first act of Nutcracker, where the children dominate the stage and most of the storytelling is done. Not surprisingly, Celeste Borman continued the tradition of excellence we’ve seen every year in every new Clara (alternating with Carrington Clark), and Eamon Murphy delighted as Fritz, Clara’s mischievous younger brother (alternating with Julian Pereira). Presumably, these performers – and the aforementioned Haritan – are the crème de la crème of NCDT’s dance classes. But while the Christmas party is presided over by Clara’s parents, Morse and Courtney Holland as Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum, the dance sections of the festivity are largely given over to other NCDT students, including a baker’s dozen of Party Guests and an elite ensemble of Clara’s Friends. There was no noticeable falloff in quality when Borman danced with her sextet of Friends – all seem to be possible future Claras – and the Friends’ synchronicity was astonishing, with or without Borman, particularly in their March. After the warring armies of Mice and Nutcracker Soldiers take their cute bows, additional youth ensembles appear in Act II, providing tight backing for the Tiramasu, Tea, Mother Ginger, Coffee Cane, and Rose segments.

Of course, the balance shifts in Act I temporarily to the adults when the caped Drosselmeyer arrives, and Mark Diamond‘s arrogance and rascality as the mysterious gift-giver are still compelling reasons to see Nutcracker every year. But once the Toy Doll and the Toy Soldier have done their shticks, once Drosselmeyer has repaired the nutcracker he has elaborately given to Clara, and all the party guests have been whisked into the wings, Diamond’s flamboyance is dramatically augmented by the technical derring-do of lighting designers Nate McGaha and John P. Woodey, the fantastical sets of Steven Rubin, and the uncredited folk who trigger the beautifully low-hanging fog, release the exquisitely falling snow, and preside over Clara’s perfect trajectory as she flies off from the Land of Snow to the Land of Sweets. The precious Ballerina and Trumpet Dolls plus seven Gongs awaken to a pleasing lightshow as the clock strikes midnight, the Christmas tree enlarges magnificently, and the great Civil War – fought by 36 of the total 72 army recruits at each performance – plays out to its triumphant conclusion. New heads for the mighty generals, namely the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, made their debut for the 2013 edition, giving the Mouse King a notably slimmer look and adding Grey Seal Puppets to the list of nine other costumers who have added onto Bjorn Winnblad’s original designs.

Only one thing went wrong during the whole swirl of action as we journeyed from the Stahlbaums’ party to Clara’s nap to the great battle and onward to the Land of Snow. It was adorable. As the titanic children’s battle heated up, the cannon that pops and belches confetti was delayed by nearly a full measure. Alert to the colors of Tchaikovsky’s score all evening long, Kalia and the CSO weren’t at all thrown off-stride. Nor were the trumpet, oboe, clarinet, harp, or celesta soloists any less satisfying than usual as the Sweets gave their command performances. Bonnefoux only planned to add one new wrinkle to his choreography, transforming the Ribbon Dancers backing Tea into a Chinese dragon at the very end of the “Chinese Dance,” but injured Jamie Dee persuaded him to create another novelty. So she appeared as the Grandmother in Act I, unacknowledged in the program, hobbling her way around the stage in a gray wig and stealing a couple of moments with her comical decrepitude. She just wanted to be part of the fun, and so should you, whether you’re young enough to be cast as the little Trumpet Doll or as old and doddering as Dee pretends to be.

This run of Nutcracker continues through 12/22. See one of the performances!