The Salisbury Symphony Orchestra presented its first performance of the 2007-2008 season in Keppel Auditorium on the campus of Catawba College with two sold-out performances of the Nutcracker ballet by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893). (This was actually the second concert of the season, the first having been performed by the North Carolina Symphony in October.) The program was presented in collaboration with the Rowan County Concert Association and featured the Piedmont Dance Theatre. The orchestra was assisted by members of the 2007-08 All-County Fifth Grade Honors Chorus.

The Piedmont Dance Theatre was founded in 2003 by Rebecca Massey Wiley, and is co-directed by Ms. Wiley and her husband, Daniel Wiley. Headquartered in Kannapolis, it is the only not-for-profit dance company serving Cabarrus/Rowan counties. In addition to the dance theater, the company also operates the Piedmont Dance Conservatory, dedicated to the dance education of young people and broadening awareness of dance to the community.

The Nutcracker is a fairytale ballet composed by Tchaikovsky in 1891-92, and is based on Alexander Dumas’ adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice.” (There are several good story synopses on the internet.) It was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa. This performance was choreographed by Rebecca Massey Wiley. In my opinion, this is a far more interesting production, as Petipa’s choreography tends to be somewhat static and stilted at times, whereas Ms. Wiley’s is much more fluid and changing all the time, giving the ballet more action and a smoother flow.

The ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, and was not given its first complete production in the United States until 1944. It was not until George Balanchine presented his first performance with the New York City Ballet in 1954 that it became really popular in this country. It is now a holiday staple in many places in the U. S.

The orchestra, including three harps, was so large that it would not fit entirely in the pit, and overflowed onto the proscenium apron on both sides. Under the expert direction of Maestro David Hagy, the musicians were excellent collaborators with the dancers. Of particular note were the flawless harp solos by Hannah Blaylock, and the delightful celesta solo for the Sugar Plum Fairy played by Renee McCachren.

Although not as opulent as some I have seen, the sets and costumes were quite fresh and bright. The sets were particularly amazing, with a professional quality equal to the best.

And then there were the dancers. This is a young dance company, and most of the dancers, even the principals, are young. Their expertise, however, belies their youth. This is a company that is agile, graceful, enthusiastic, and above all, professional, from the tiniest tot to the most senior dancer. This is an extraordinarily well-disciplined group of people. Piedmont Dance Theatre has boundless potential to become a major force in the dance world.

Just one word comes to mind to describe this performance: “astounding.” The orchestra was astounding, the sets were astounding, the costumes were astounding, and the dancers were astounding. Add them all together, and you get – astounding. The audience — 1400 strong at each performance — agreed, giving rousing standing ovations. To find such a wealth of talent in semi-rural central North Carolina is, well, astounding.