A “new” Nutcracker was born this week at the Stevens Center of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. This was the first ballet staged and directed by new Dean of the School of Dance Ethan Stiefel who, with Susan McCullough, Nigel Burley, and Warren Conover, also choreographed the ballet. For a first effort, it was remarkable.
What’s not to like about the Nutcracker ballet? With colorful costumes and sets, wonderful dancing, a fine orchestra playing an exquisite score and a charming story well-told, it has become a Christmas tradition in ballet companies across the U.S. There are many versions and choreographies, all beginning with the 1892 version of Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. And that is the version we have been accustomed to seeing at UNCSA for over forty years, as reproduced from the Ballet de Monte Carlo (the vestige of the former Ballets Russes) by former Dean Robert Lindgren and his wife and partner Sonja.
The high point of the evening came in the second act when guest artists Gillian Murphy and Sasha Radetsky, both from the American Ballet Theater, were featured in the several dances loosely called “Pink Pas” because of the pink tutu worn by the ballerina. Ms. Murphy was already stunning when a student at UNCSA and she is even better now. In the Pas de deux she timed herself perfectly, filling the space with grace and strength. Her Sugar Plum Fairy was the essence of delicate pas de chats (cat steps) and perfect rhythm; the Coda sparkled with speed and accuracy. Her partner, Mr. Radetsky, is handsome, well-proportioned and strong. He was the perfect partner in the Pas de deux, getting maximum altitude in the lifts. In his solo Tarantella he was the picture of speed, strength and precision, and in the closing duo his grand manège (roundabout) drew cheers from the audience.
In the new version, a few cuts have been made in the music and some repeats deleted. More significantly, some of the anticipated ensemble dances (such as the dazzling opening of the second act, with its revolving flowers) have been changed into pantomimes. Pity! And at times the choreography in Act I took on the nature of calisthenics (the famous March) and in what had always been my favorite, the “Snow Pas de deux,” the choreography appeared more athletic than grandiose. I especially missed the grand lifts which, in the Petipa-Ivanov choreography, fulfill so well the climaxes of the Tchaikovsky score — and of course, I missed the 12 strokes of midnight. And the ensuing battle between toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker himself, and an assortment of mice, big and small, was more slapstick than scary.
But some highlights stood out: Sasha’s 2nd act pantomime recounting the defeat of the mouse king (danced by Miles Sollar-White), the Shepherd in "Mirliton" (Billy Morgan), the gossamer sheet hiding the seductive and elusive Arabian (or Hindu?) dancer (Kris Nobles), the drunken brawl of the "Trepak," the comic antics of Mother Ginger (Ryan Hill), and the excellent Drosslmeyer (Diego Schloch), who managed to insert himself into both acts. The lighting (Brad Fields) of the "Waltz of the Flowers" is very effective, and the return of Clara, Sasha, and Drosslmeyer to the site of the original party at the end of the ballet is a dramatic stroke which would persuade me totally had there been more dancing in the "Apotheosis"!
Maestro Ransom Wilson led his orchestra of mostly UNCSA students and alumni with confidence and agility. Defying the local press’s doubts that the student orchestra could tackle the tough score, he produced an accompaniment that was of high quality. Unfortunately the reduced size of the string sections hurt in two ways: they were often overpowered by the winds, and they could never achieve a convincing pianissimo – indeed, the only real dynamic effects were due to thicker or thinner orchestration – when the winds stopped playing it was soft, when they played it was loud.
It is interesting to contrast the score of the Nutcracker with that of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6, the "Pathétique," written during or just after the ballet. The Nutcracker, Op. 71, is cheerful and written predominately in high registers (in the "Miniature Overture," only the high instruments, divided strings, no celli or basses are used), whereas in the somber and brooding "Pathétique," Op. 74, lugubrious low instruments prevail.
This same cast of performers will be featured on Sunday, December 6, at 2 p.m., and other performances, with rotating casts, will take place on December 9, 10, 11, 12, 13 at 7:30 p.m. and December 12 and 13 at 2 p.m. See our calendar for details.
Note: In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer has conducted several hundred performances of the Nutcracker ballet, including many at the UNCSA.