Recent weather notwithstanding, you don’t need snow (or cold) to feel festive. Indeed, all you really need is that little thing called holiday spirit. If you’re finding it difficult to find this spirit amidst the blue cloudless skies and sun-drenched afternoons, you’ll find it behind the green doors of the Stevens Center, where a family is partaking in their annual Christmas party.

Everyone knows this family: the parents who prep the tree and decorations while the curious children, a brother and sister, peep through the keyhole. They can’t see much, except perhaps the outline of a Christmas tree, complete with lights and presents. The guests arrive, more parents with children, and eventually a mysterious magician and his assistant, who present the daughter with a familiar present: a Nutcracker.

Its story is familiar to us. Whether or not we have grown up watching the Balanchine-choreographed version of this classic ballet, the music is engrained in our heads much the same way “Over the Rainbow” is. And for many Triad residents, what stays engrained with these familiar tunes and plotlines are the striking images of the UNCSA‘s production, now in its 50th year (albeit in several incarnations) of introducing and re-imagining the tale for audiences.

This year brings new artists to the production: Ethan Stiefel, a renowned New York dancer (among other accomplishments), has brought a new Act II opener to life; new scenic elements are added by Howard C. Jones; and new costumes by Kathryn E. Grillo (bio at the bottom of this page) are fashioned to perfection on stage.

This production is a notable standout among a country full of Nutcracker-imitations for its intense collaboration within the UNCSA community. Virtually everyone involved in the production is a student of UNCSA, from the scenic drop painters to the orchestra pit members. As a result, the production is indeed a success even before the first note is played. How thrilling too that the high expectations of the production are met.

And in its most thrilling moments, Nutcracker outdoes itself in combining scenic elements and high musical quality and will nearly move you to tears, especially the penultimate Christmas tree-growing moment. Charles Barker‘s controlled conducting is a highlight. Chris Martin’s Drosselmeyer is compelling in his interpretation of the character as a Dr. Caligari-type ringmaster of mayhem.

What pleasure too it is to see a Nutcracker that combines the classic dancing of Balanchine with the contemporary nearly effortlessly. Those with very little experience seeing a ballet will be able to converse flawlessly at dinner parties about pirouettes and arabesques while commenting on how the Rats in Act I do bits of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” dance to Tchaikovsky’s music. Or comment on how this production does inventive re-imaginings of the Act II solo dances, including setting the “Marzipan” in a Don-Juan-type courting dance.

Yet even when this Nutcracker is epic, it maintains a romantic intimacy that is lost in many productions. There is romance that underlies the ballet’s climactic Pas De Deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Prince. Dancers Emily DeVito and Bret Coppa take the dance to a new place of desire and intimacy that makes the grandeur achingly beautiful. This poignancy resonates throughout the play and even in its striking final image, a hauntingly subdued final note to an evening of grand beauty.

For 50 years, The Nutcracker at School of the Arts has taken audiences to magical lands and back again, refreshed and renewed in their spirit of the season. After all this time, it continues to do so, taking you high up into the clouds until you’re dizzy from the height of it all. As you walk out of the Stevens Center, the warmth of the holidays is seen in the smiles of those around you. It does feel like you’ve awoken from a yuletide dream, except this one can be relived year after year, and it keeps getting better.

And that’s very wonderful to know.

Nutcracker resumes Dec. 16-20. For details, see the sidebar.