As predictable as clockwork, the Christmas season ushers in thoughts of sugar plums and candy canes and the charming Nutcracker music written by the otherwise conflicted composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. In the Piedmont Triad region of North Carolina, this means the annual presentation at the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina’s School of the Arts, a dozen performances of the Nutcracker ballet, ending Sunday, December 22. Campus Night is when parents, classmates, faculty, and relatives pack the Stevens Center to cheer on the students onstage, backstage, and in the pit – vociferously and sometimes raucously.

E.T.A. Hofmann (1776-1822), author of not only The Nutcracker but also Tales of Hoffmann and Coppélia, was fascinated by the possibility of reproducing the movements of humans and animals with mechanized (wind-up) clockwork contraptions, many based on the automaton of Pierre Jaquet-Droz (1721-90). We see this fascination reflected in several of the dances in Act I, in the party scene, in which real dancers mime the rigid movements of automata such as the toy soldier (spectacularly danced by Gabriel Ramirez) and Harlequin and Columbine, part of the entertainment brought to the party by the mysterious and frightening Herr Drosselmeyer (veteran Chris Martin).

The Nutcracker is a darkly romantic story of a girl who dreams of being in love with the nutcracker her God-father (Drosselmeyer) has given her. Set to music by Tchaikovsky in 1892 and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the current UNCSA version of the ballet was created in 2009 by Ethan Stiefel and is directed by Jared Redick, Assistant Dean of the UNCSA School of Dance. Although inspired by the original Petipa/Ivanov choreography, the only portion of the ballet retained from the original is the second act Pas de Deux with its tarantella and codas, collectively known as the “Pink Pas.” With the exception of two guest dancers, Sara Mearns and Peter Walker, from the New York City Ballet (who will dance the “Pink Pas” on December 18 and 19), and Drosselmeyer, all the dancers are students of the UNCSA School of Dance.

The orchestra, composed entirely of students of the UNCSA School of Music, was conducted quite impressively by guest conductor Karin Hendrickson. The tempos were brisk in the first act, where much of the music accompanies pantomime rather than dance, but the second act was admirably handled by Hendrickson, who actually accompanied and thereby enhanced the performance of the dancers. Unfortunately, the sound and balance of the orchestra was corrupted by overly loud and unfocussed amplification. Sitting in row 3, I could not hear the sound of the live orchestra because of the speakers, which blared from overhead. I changed places for the second act, sitting near the back of the hall, but the distortion was only slightly better. When I asked about the use of amplification, a person from the technical staff replied that the amplification is set high so dancers on the stage could hear the music. (I wonder what dancers in Tchaikovsky’s time did without loudspeakers – or are audiences now having to pay the price of the Millenials’ preoccupation with electronic devices?)

The spectacular expanding Christmas tree and the scene change are a visual treat and a match to the superb music of Tchaikovsky, and the ensuing battle between mice and toy soldiers made for many moments of hilarity. Dance students Carolina Centenera and partner Joseph Hall-Conley were excellent in the first act “Snow Pas de Deux,” coping with the action-packed choreography with rare calm and superb musicality. Special mention for the great job with the “Oou-Ah” Chorus that closes the act, sung by the perfectly miked Winston-Salem Youth Chorus.

There are nightly performances through December 22 and four afternoon matinees. See the sidebar for details!