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North Carolina Dance Theatre Reprises Its Sweet-Toothed Nutcracker

December 11, 2009 - Charlotte, NC:


Ever since NC Dance Theatre transplanted itself from Winston-Salem in 1990, the company’s production of The Nutcracker has been a staple of the Queen City’s holiday season. But it hasn’t always been the same production. Through 2005, the choreography was by Salvatore Aiello, the former artistic director whose tenure ended with his death in 1995. In 2006, Aiello’s successor, Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, had the temerity to supplant the old Nut with a world premiere of his own.

There are radical differences, to be sure. Aiello’s vision, spiced with Freudian yearnings and sibling jealousies, was probably even more admired than it was beloved. There were linkages between Clara’s brother Fritz at the Christmas soirée and the Mouse King of the fantasy world, between her older sister and Sugar Plum, between the older sister’s fiancé and Plum’s Prince, and between the fiancé and Clara’s dear, dear Nutcracker. Lots of libidinous urges were percolating as Clara ascended to fairyland – all under the spell of the mystically powerful Herr Drosselmeyer, whose interest in the child may not have been purely avuncular. All of these characters had extra weight, particularly Clara, and Mia Cunningham became the ballerina sweetheart of Charlotte dancing the role year after year.

Bonnefoux’s version is simpler, sunnier, sweeter, and more traditional. New characters added by Aiello, the betrothed sister and her fiancé have turned in their civilian clothes and now exist only in the Land of Sweets as Sugar Plum and her Cavalier, now stripped of their powers to spark sibling jealousy and prepubescent desire. Young apprentices from NCDT’s School of Dance now play all the children’s roles, including Clara and Fritz. We all need to brush our teeth vigorously after visiting Bonnefoux’s high-fructose Candyland, for the courtyard where Clara and her Nutcracker Prince are enthroned is a candy-cane Parthenon, with green-, orange-, purple-, yellow-, blue-, and red-swirled colonnades as high as the proscenium. Fructose content is further compounded by the divertissements, which now include Chocolate, Tiramisu, Marzipan, non-architectural embodiments of Candy Cane, and Mother Ginger – with a horde of little periwigged snaps who emerge from under her skirts.

The spectacle at Belk Theater is on a mammoth scale, with a cast of children and adults so huge – with so many changes during the 10-performance run – that the four-page cast list is typeset like a railroad schedule. No fewer than three dancers take shifts over the course of the run (December 11-20) on the major roles of Clara, Sugar Plum, Cavalier, Snow Queen, Drosselmeyer, and most of the divertissements. The depth of the company – seamlessly meshing members of NCDT, NCDT2, and the School of Dance – has grown impressively during the four editions of the new Nutcracker, along with the ease and confidence of their performances.

The production itself continues to evolve. Due to budget constraints, scenic designer Steven Rubin’s candy cane fantasia wasn’t in place for the 2006 premiere, and the roster of additional costume designers – after Bjorn Winnblad designed the original wardrobe – currently stands at seven. A frontispiece was added last year, masking the set from view during the overture, but there was an additional tweak this year. At the soirée, there is now a robotic butler, danced by David Ingram, whose thick mustachios foreshadow the handlebars of the Nutcracker Generale who leads his soldiers into battle against Mouse King and his rattalions.

With exciting opportunities to rotate into fresh roles, NCDT’s core troupers seem to always revel in their performances. After missing last season’s production on maternity leave, Rebecca Carmazzi glowed with ebullient energy as Sugar Plum on opening night, partnered with her real-life husband Sasha Janes dancing the Cavalier. Nor was there any less sparkle from the other power couples, Kara Wilkes and Addul Manzano as the Snow Queen and King, or Wilkes and Justin VanWeest as Coffee, better known to Nutcracker aficionados as the sinuous “Arabian” pas de deux. Standouts among the soloists were Mark Diamond, handling the eccentric wizardry of Drosselmeyer; Alessandra Ball, as Rose leading the “Dance of the Flowers”; and Max Levy, stiff as the Soldier Doll in Act 1, and lithe as the lead Candy Cane in the divertissements.

If there were ever any difficulties for the Charlotte Symphony in performing Tchaikovsky’s score, they have long disappeared during the 20 seasons of performing it live with NCDT. The orchestra, reprieved from the financial brink late last summer, has been playing all season long with renewed zest and enhanced precision. With NC Symphony resident conductor William Henry Curry making his first appearance at the Belk podium, there was no want of freshness or clarity from the pit. Compared to Gennady Rozhdestvensky’s benchmark recording of 1985 with the Royal Opera House orchestra at Covent Garden, Curry’s tempos were radically different only in a couple of instances, the first act overture and the Grand Pas de Deux. Curry’s pacing is noticeably slower without affecting the vitality of the music, although the oceanic sway of Rozhdestvensky’s Grand Pas has disappeared. But detailing sparkles throughout this climactic pas de deux, from the delicate harp to the rumbling timpani and the thrashing cymbals, with plenty of bite from the brass. And the pacing here is right for Bonnefoux’s choreography, which glitters with elegance while exciting with athleticism, balance, and risk.

Performances continue December 18-20. See our calendar for details.