Asheville Ballet has a long history of presenting outstanding performances, which is not surprising considering the background of the company’s director, Ann Dunn. A student of several prolific dancers, this past year Dunn has continued the tradition of two of her mentors. In May, she staged a production of Appalachian Spring, originally choreographed by Martha Graham, who was Dunn’s teacher and a hugely influential figure often remembered as the “Mother of Modern Dance.” Dunn also studied under the “Father of American Ballet,” the prolific George Balanchine, who is best known for staging the hugely popular American version of The Nutcracker. It should be noted that Balanchine studied under Marius Petipa, the head choreographer for the original 1892 premiere of the ballet, putting Dunn in the special position of being only two degrees separated from the primary source. Dunn uses her deep knowledge of tradition and connection to giants of the past, love of storytelling through movement, and training in both classical ballet and modern dance to present exciting new works of impressive caliber every year with Asheville Ballet. All these components made for an especially memorable performance on December 13 when she and the entire company of Asheville Ballet put on a stellar performance of the holiday classic at the Diana Wortham Theatre.

Dunn possesses a magnificent aptitude for highlighting two prerequisites of great ballet – storytelling and music. The latter is an especially difficult component to capture in a performance where the story is entirely told through dance and the music becomes a critical part of the dramatic process. Dunn has a special talent for clearly connecting the thematic unity within the music to the movement on stage. This correlation was amplified during the seminal scene where Clara receives the gift of the Nutcracker, cradling it in her arms with a gentle three count sway to the triple meter of the music. The lullaby theme in the flute begins as a waltz in Tchaikovsky’s score and is shortly thereafter transformed into a duple feel. A less insightful choreographer would have merely observed the meter change, but Dunn, with her understanding of music’s power to tell a story, brought back the same graceful choreography in direct synchronicity with the lullaby theme.

This attention to the music was coupled with an unflinching desire to communicate the dramatic intent. Even in the most actively choreographed moments of the ballet, there was clarity and symmetry on stage, where one could see the evolution of the story arc as the protagonist, Clara, transitions from an age of innocence to the dangers and delights of the greater world. It is easy for a ballet with such an enormous cast to turn into a visually cluttered mess on stage, but this was never the case. Even when multiple groups of dancers were engaging in a myriad of movement, the viewer’s focus was always brought directly to the central characters of the story. This was especially notable in the Christmas party scene in the opening act, where the excitement and frenzy of the March movement provided all members of the cast opportunitiess to display their technique.

And technique was abundant with this company! There were several impressive performances throughout the course of the ballet. Emily Craig provided a wonderful conclusion to the opening act with her performance as the Snow Queen, commanding the stage with an elegant presence and immaculate technique en pointe. Leah Lynch and Phillip Elssner, two teenage dancers in the roles of the marzipan shepherds in the “Danse des Mirlitons,” displayed a maturity in their poise and well beyond their years, their graceful plies in perfect synchronicity. Toff Ylanan’s virtuosic and gymnastic grand jetés across Diana Wortham’s stage provided an energetic contrast inLa mère Gigogne et les polichinelles” (Mother Ginger), and Lexie Moore and Justin Lowe perfectly captured the excitement of a bullfight with a visceral yet elegantly controlled duet to the “Le chocolat: Danse espagnole” movement in the second act. Eleanor MacDonald shined as the Sugar Plum Fairy, perfectly spinning out a multitude of piqués to the rapid celesta arpeggios in the coda of the ballet’s most famous excerpt.

One dancer who consistently stole the show, however, was the brilliant Fleming Lomax. A longtime member of Asheville Ballet and co-choreographer for this performance, Lomax has impeccable form and an acute attention to the details of the music. She demonstrated this awareness multiple times in the ballet, as she performed several roles. However, it was her performance in “Le café: Danse arabe,” which left the audience momentarily spellbound before erupting into the loudest applause of the evening. Lomax’s meditative and precise choreography was a picturesque tribute to Dunn’s mentor Martha Graham, evoking the minimalistic yet powerful intensity of the late modern dance icon. The infusion of multiple consecutive pirouettes was executed with such effortlessness and rhythmic acuity that they did not detract from the hypnotic aesthetic of the choreography. Rather, these trademark maneuvers of the classical ballet school were seamlessly integrated as a tasteful embellishment in Lomax’s immaculate essay on movement.

Tchaikovsky’s music and Balanchine’s choreography have become staples of our annual holiday heritage, and The Nutcracker is an integral component of our culture’s yuletide spirit. Western North Carolina is fortunate to have such an immensely talented dance company with Asheville Ballet, and Ann Dunn’s visionary direction and guidance continue to provide our region with integrated art of the highest caliber.

These performances continue through December 15. For details, see the sidebar.