The Stevens Center was full and many laps were filled by children, too, for the first performance (of over a dozen) of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ [] annual Nutcracker, Op. 71, by Tchaikovsky, written at the peak of his career as a composer and in the prime of a life abruptly ended by cholera a year later. This ballet became a holiday tradition in the 1960s when the New York City Ballet made it an annual event, filling the coffers for more adventurous ballets of a less popular appeal.

The current production, staged for the first time in 2009 by Ethan Stiefel, until recently star of the American Ballet Theater and former dean at UNCSA, replaced the version staged at UNCSA since 1966 by choreographer (and dean of dance at the time) Robert Lindgren and his wife Sonya Tyven, based on the original choreography of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Fortunately for purists, Stiefel kept some parts of this original choreography, notably the second act Pas de deux and Sugar Plum Fairy solo as well as the “Waltz of the Flowers.” Other parts of the ballet saw dance sacrificed for pantomime in an effort to strengthen the story-line. This writer especially regrets the absence of the female ballet corps at the beginning of the second act and the reshuffling of roles in the grand Apotheosis at the end of the ballet. (There’s more on choreographers here.)

That said, this year’s production is excellent, with great dancing by the young students of the UNCSA’s School of Dance (Susan Jaffe, Dean). The party scene at the Silverhaus home is charming, and Clara Silverhaus (Sierra Armstrong, on opening night) is a strong dancer. Her partner in the adventure, Sasha (Andy Fernandez) is the nephew of the ubiquitous Herr Drosslmeyer (Chris Martin) who entertains the other guests at the party with his robotic creations, Harlequin (Connor Cohen) and Columbine (Saki Moritoto) who dance together and the Toy Soldier (Tyler Sandborn) who astoundingly struts his stuff until his spring winds down.

The transition to the miniature world, where Clara’s nutcracker comes to life (suspiciously resembling Sasha), involves the magically growing Christmas tree with extraordinary lighting effects. The ensuing battle between toy soldiers and mice is more caricature than battle, but leads to the final scene of Act I, the “Snow Scene” with what has traditionally been a beautiful slow pas de deux. Although the tempo of the music remains as Tchaikovsky intended, the choreographer of the “Snow Pas” has decided that the dancers should dance many more intricate and rapid steps, somewhat upsetting the balance between the slow pas and the fast “Snow Waltz” that follows. Hannah Davis was the Snow Queen and Connor Cohen her valiant partner, the Snow King.

The “Waltz of the Flowers” is one of Tchaikovsky’s greatest waltzes and a high point of the ensemble work of the female corps de ballet. It was a pleasure to see the diversity of sizes of the corps dance so well together, knowing that in the cruel world of professionals, directors will usually look for uniformity rather than diversity – George Balanchine and Maurice Béjart being notable exceptions. Only the closing measures of the score provoked disarray in an otherwise outstanding Waltz.

It has long been a tradition for the UNCSA School of Dance to invite alumni to star in a couple of the performances each year, both to allow audiences to see the stars the school has produced, but especially for the inspiration such visits give to current students. Now a Principal Dancer with the American Ballet Theater, alumna Gillian Murphy (1996) is the quintessential ballerina – strong with beautiful long lines, a profound sense of rhythm and a graceful beauty. Her second act “Pink Pas” was exquisite, partnered with strength and flair by Gonzalo Garcia, a Principal Dancer of the New York City Ballet. Ms. Murphy’s Sugar Plum variation was a breath-taking foray into delicacy and her piqués fouettés in the Presto were stunning! The Coda brought them together for the climax of the evening!

The UNCSA orchestra, conducted by Charles Barker (principal conductor of the ABT) and composed exclusively of students, was excellent. If some of the brisk tempos seemed to challenge the dancers, they were a breeze to the music students although one might have wished for more sound from the cellos and the bass clarinet, and more attention to rhythmic accuracy from the horns in the early part of the second act.

The attentive audience applauded enthusiastically, but rose as if by magic when Ms. Murphy took her bows. What a ballerina!

Nutcracker continues through December 22. For details, see the sidebar.