A packed house welcomed guest soloists from the San Francisco Ballet to the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts. Midway through the season’s run of over a dozen performances (including morning and afternoon performances for busloads of students), the guest artists perform twice before returning to their own even fuller season!

Entirely danced, staged, and played by students (under the supervision and direction of the faculty) of the prestigious UNC School of the Arts for more than 50 years (student orchestras have replaced the Winston-Salem Symphony since 2009), the annual production of the Nutcracker has prepared countless dozens of leading dancers in all the major companies in the U.S. and abroad for a career in dance.

The entire production was brilliant, festive, and exhilarating. The costumes remain one of the chief attractions, from checkered harlequins to baby mice and from waltzing flowers to the gigantic Mother Ginger. The lighting highlighted the costumes, and the music provided the mood and tempo of the story, originally a creation of the Romantic German genius, E.T.A. Hoffmann, who also gave us Coppélia and The Tales of Hoffman.

The current version of the wonderful score Tchaikovsky delivered to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1892 has been tailored to the ideas of former UNCSA Dean of Dance, Ethan Steifel and cuts about eight minutes from the score, mostly repeats of previously heard music. The result was brisk and athletic, always entertaining and sometimes droll!

I wish the current Snow pas de deux had the elegant dignity of the Petipas/Ivanov version, and that the opening of Act II were more than pantomime. Both the Snow pas de deux and the ensuing Waltz seemed frenetically athletic and agitated, increasing perhaps the entertainment level while sacrificing purely artistic ideals. Nevertheless, dancers Shiho Funayama as the Snow Queen and Erik Kim as her King were spectacular in Wednesday’s performance. (Roles and casts change from night to night.)

Guest artists Yuan Yuan Tan and Jaime Garcia Castilla brought us the choreography of their artistic director in San Francisco, the legendary Helgi Tomasson, for their second act grand pas de deux. In part inspired by the original choreography, it highlighted the beauty of the two dancers, the purity of their lines and the incredible musicality of Tan, as we saw in her solo Sugar Plum Fairy dance. Nonetheless, I regretted that the lifts didn’t coincide with the high points of the musical score. The short preparation time might explain why the Presto was omitted without revising the last measure of the “Sugar Plum.” As for the male variation, I have yet to see a completely satisfying choreography set to the Tarantella – the closest being a build up to a grand manège or a series of repeated entrechats.

I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the orchestra, under the competent and enthusiastic direction of Brian Cole, the recently appointed Dean of the School of Music. Although tempos were faster than usual, obviously a dance priority, most sections were able to keep up, although the horn syncopations in the first number of the second act soon ceased to be off the beat! I was more perturbed by the generally loud dynamic level of the orchestra – except when light instrumentation made it soft, the general level of the orchestra was loud or louder. Nuances like the general build-up of the horns in the “Waltz of the Flowers” (each entrance of the theme louder, but starting piano) or the subtle “Arabian Dance” where Tchaikovsky makes a point of changing the dynamics each time the tune starts were ignored by the eager and otherwise excellent young musicians.

The Nutcracker performances continue through December 17. Tan and Castilla perform again on Thursday, December 14. See sidebar for details.