North Carolina Dance Theatre’s (NCDT) production of Sleeping Beauty, which opened on March 8 at the Levine Center for the Arts Knight Theater, is part of a month-long cultural festival in Charlotte inaugurated this year by the city’s three dominant performing arts organizations, Opera Carolina, the Charlotte Symphony, and NCDT. Named the “Ulysses” festival after a spring butterfly (no, it has nothing to do with Greece or James Joyce, although I have heard numerous people refer to it as “that Odyssey festival”), the collaboration among cultural groups is intended to be an annual event. Inspired by Opera Carolina’s forthcoming production of Eugene Onegin, this year’s festival celebrates Tchaikovsky.

A Tchaikovsky festival provided NCDT Artistic Director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux the happy occasion to present Sleeping Beauty to audiences whose previous experiences with the glorious Russian story ballets have been only the annual Nutcracker performances at Christmas. It is truly a gift to the community, beautifully choreographed and elegantly danced.

Tchaikovsky was a composer, so one must mourn the fact that the dancers performed to canned music. What a difference an orchestra makes! Unlike the action on the stage, recorded music is flat and texture-less. It does not even seem to exist in the same world as the dancers, both because it is so nondescript and because it is not human – there is no opportunity for aesthetic interaction between musicians and dancers. But, of course, no one yearns for live musical accompaniment more than Bonnefoux and his excellent company. They certainly deserve it.

It is often said that the true test of a musician – an orchestra, a chamber group, or a soloist – is whether he or she (or they) can play Mozart well, not the big, showy, virtuosic works by composers such as Rachmaninoff or Liszt. The test is one of precision and balance, transparency and articulation, polish and grace. The same is true for a dance company: classical ballet tests its mettle. NCDT is a remarkably versatile company that does so many styles of dance well, and fortunately classical ballet is among them.

What is especially interesting, though, is that within the vast classical ballet language, there are subtle and sophisticated “Mozart” moments and there are big juicy, crowd-pleasing “Rachmaninoff” moments. Everyone loves the high-flying leaps and the multiple turns, and Bonnefoux allowed enough thrilling displays of virtuosity to elicit frequent oohs and aahs.

But overall, his choreography (after the master Petipa) captivates with its delicacy rather than the sensational. The movement explores the many minute variations of the ballet vocabulary, drawing the audience in to really appreciate the quick beating of the ankles or the angle of a leg or the shimmer of a bourrée across the floor. It is movement that says, if you really look closely, you will see wonders.

The principals on the evening of March 9 were, as in The Nutcracker in December, Alessandra Ball as Aurora and Abdul Manzano as Prince Florimond (Anna Gerberich and Pete Walker dance the roles in alternate performances). They both did an admirable job. One of the highlights of Aurora’s role is the presentation of the suitors in the first act when the princess remains in attitude on point for an unbelievably long time as she greets each suitor. The second act, though, really demonstrated Ball’s maturity as a ballerina – not because her steps were any more practiced or elegant, but because her whole body seemed different. In Act II, Aurora is a mere apparition – a dream that appears to Prince Florimond – and there was truly something dreamlike about Ball’s presentation; a wistfulness, a certain fluidity that made her indeed otherworldly.

The third act Grand Pas de Deux was a showcase of the couple’s individual and partnering talents. Manzano excited audiences with his height and swiftness. Ball is not an extravagant, look-at-me sort of dancer, possessing modesty and a calm, confident grace that suit the young Princess Aurora. There were so many lovely moments in their partnership, but perhaps the loveliest was an extraordinary fish dive.

The third act’s wedding scene is a delightful set of “fairy tale” dances, featuring characters such as Red Riding Hood and Puss-in-Boots. Each was well danced and full of expression. The sassy White Cat and Puss-in-Boots (Kiera Connors and Justin VanWeest) seemed to be the audience’s favorites.

David Ingram was a wonderfully creepy Carabosse (the bad fairy); Melissa Anduiza was the sweetly elegant Lilac Fairy who brought a 100-year sleep to the kingdom. The vivacious and buoyant Sarah Hayes Watson shone as the Fairy of Generosity and a Diamond at the wedding.

The corps demands special mention for the gorgeous Garland and Nymph dances. Bonnefoux created many striking patterns with those dancers, which they executed beautifully. The production, with sets and costumes borrowed from Ballet West in Salt Lake City, Utah, is sumptuous. With just under 1200 seats, the Knight Theater is a perfect venue for ballet. Every seat affords a wonderful view. And it even has an orchestra pit, which NCDT will perhaps put to use next year for the second Ulysses festival.