The finest vantage point from which to enter vicariously into the magical fairyland world of The Nutcracker must be center front orchestra seats, eyes level with the stage. This report is from that location in the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem, on the afternoon of December 7. Frank Smith, an alumnus lured back from the rank of soloist with the American Ballet Theater to be a member of the faculty of the School of Dance at North Carolina School of the Arts, has assisted Robert Lindgren in the staging annually since 1983. The other staging assistant is Christine Spizzo, who was a principal teacher and rehearsal assistant of the American Ballet Theater Summer Intensive before joining the ballet faculty at NCSA in the fall of 2000. Their combined work has the semblance of perfection.
The Stevens Center production is a truly magnificent Lindgren/Tyvnen concept. This year's performance far surpassed the presentation that I remember from the 1970s at Reynolds Auditorium, the NCSA Nutcracker 's first Winston-Salem habitat. My first Nutcracker was at the City Center in New York City, where NCSA choreographers Robert Lindgren and his wife Sonja Tyven have performed in the work. Actually, I was reminded by another credit, and recently by an old ballet program, that I had seen them dance with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the old Metropolitan Opera House in the mid-40s. Their experiences working with choreographer George Balanchine, together with their individual talent, are the sources of inspiration for this production. Only the expanding Christmas tree in the City Center was larger. This version was every bit as professional.
Outstanding stage design immediately became apparent as the Winston-Salem Symphony played the Overture, conducted by its Music Director of 25 years, Peter Perret. While the ear is delighted, the eye is drawn to a huge medallion featuring a profile of the composer, Tchaikovsky, centered toward the lower part of the opening backdrop. The gold medallion appears to be three-dimensional, as does the gold fringe at the bottom of the backdrop. At the very top, Nutcracker is apparently spelled out, in Cyrillic characters. The principal figures pictured above the medallion are two huge mice on the left facing off against the Nutcracker character on the right. Scenery and equally outstanding costume design are by Campbell Baird, as of 1996. He is a member of the board of trustees of United Scenic Artists, the national union for designers and crafts people for theatre, film and television.
To grasp the enormity of this production, I must quote from the "Fascinating Facts" in the Program:
"A principal dancer wears out more than six pairs of pointe shoes during the run of performances. Overall, approximately $7,000 worth of shoes [is] used in the production each year.
"The fur for the mice and bear is actually layers of net sewn on velvet and then trimmed. From a distance, it looks like fur. It took three people three weeks (at 30 hours per week) to make the nine mouse 'body tutus.'
"It took 10,000 hours to construct all the costumes. Thirty-two students, staff members and volunteers participated.
"Sixty people make up the production staff/technical crew. Forty of them - including technicians, electricians, stage managers, wardrobe and special effects people - work backstage for every performance."
Perfect as a recording, the music was delightfully live. The orchestra was out of sight in the pit. The usual music stands notwithstanding, the Symphony probably played this old chestnut by rote, as they have been performing Nutcracker since 1966, with the usual personnel changes. This is Maestro Perret's final year with the WSSO, so I was privileged to see the back of his head and his baton perhaps for the last time. We remember his audition for the position when we lived in Winston-Salem that many years ago.
Katie Walker and Quinn Wharton excelled as the enchanting Snow Queen and Snow King. Other dancers were scheduled for some of the other performances. So much had already transpired that curtain calls for the participants in Act I came before intermission: hosts Dr. and Mrs. Silverhaus, Clara, Fritz, Dr. Drosselmeyer and his nephew, and other guests, including prodigious child dancers, or perhaps dancers dressed as young children. Then there were the Columbine, Harlequin and the Toy Soldier, the Bear, the Mouse King and the Mice, and also the Nutcracker soldiers, the Snow Queen, Snow King and Snow Flakes. Each, too numerous to mention, had performed his role impeccably. A charming Clara was danced by Lauren Browning in this performance, and a delightful Drosselmeyer, by Marin Boireu. Boireu is the winner of the gold medal at the prestigious Varna and Moscow Ballet Competitions. Before becoming the ballet master at Carolina Ballet, he was principal ballet dancer for the Miami City Ballet. Bill Tribby, from 1978-99 the dean of General Studies at NCSA, was to dance the Drosselmeyer role in two performances.
Spectacular after intermission was the entrance of gold-winged angels, with what almost resembled Monarch butterfly wings. They entered on clouds created by 80 pounds of dry ice, according to "Fascinating Facts," and they paid homage or ministered to Clara and her Prince on their delicate high-backed central thrones. Impressive was the persona of Mother Ginger, played in this performance by Nicholas Hubert, in humongous 13-foot drag. From beneath his hot pink costume's skirts came yellow-clothed children as if from the Old Woman who Lived In a Shoe, but that nursery rhyme has nothing to do with this tale.
Leah O'Connor and Jackson Sarver were the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, dancing in exquisite traditional form. O'Connor and Sarver excelled later in the Pas de deux, in their solo Variations, and in the Coda, as well. Tumultuous applause throughout the performance greeted all the participants as Clara and her Prince were entertained by dancers from throughout the world. There were two instances in which the audience clapped in time to the music as if prepped to do so. Perhaps it was a remembered annual act of participation, because it seemed so spontaneous.
The entire ensemble participated in the Finale, which is a virtual curtain call inasmuch as everyone gets to recap a segment of his specialty. Then came the impressive final curtain call. The audience remained enchanted throughout. In sophisticated Winston-Salem, there was no automatic standing ovation for this outstanding Nutcracker . The audience simply expects excellence from North Carolina School of the Arts' Nutcracker presentations, and the dancers know, from their interaction and from the applause during the entire performance, that they have fulfilled the expectations.
Unique lighting design must be credited to John McKernon, author of Lightwright , the industry standard software for theatrical lighting designers and electricians. A burst of fairy dust shimmering down like snow in the glorious light enhanced the conclusion.
This run continues Dec. 11-14. See our Triad calendar for details.