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I suppose that if I should live to be 100 and watch the Nutcracker every year, it might eventually pall on me. But as things stand now, the Carolina Ballet's annual production remains a delectable treat, and the company's exhortations to make it a holiday tradition seem perfectly reasonable if one enjoys sweepingly romantic music, storyline, and dancing.
This year, for the first time, the Carolina Ballet added a Chapel Hill venue to its Nutcracker run — the renovated Memorial Hall at UNC. The ambience in Memorial Hall is extremely different from that of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, and the acoustics are rather different, as well. The orchestra, led by Alfred Sturgis and composed of members of the North Carolina Symphony, the Winston-Salem Symphony and other, unaffiliated musicians, played very well on opening night, December 2. The sound was clean, resonant, and balanced. The strings were warm, the brass, bright and glowing, the percussion, full and round. The orchestra was especially splendid in some of the most romantic sections — the dance of the Northwind and the Snowflakes, the Waltz of the Flowers, and the beautiful pas de deux for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier; the music almost seeming to create and propel the dances. Sadly, Emil Kang, UNC's performing arts honcho, in his on-stage welcome and introduction, failed to mention the orchestra's existence (although it was immediately below him in the pit), nor were the musicians noted in the printed program. As live music has so much to do with the success of this program, that seems an odd and unkind oversight.
The cast on the 2nd had its strengths and its weaknesses, but the ballet itself was as delightful as ever. All the gleeful, silly stage business interlocks well with the dancing, and both progress the story in such an unpretentious way that seeing Weiss' choreography year after year is rather like returning to a favorite picture book. It is at once familiar and studded with little visual jokes that one had forgotten or never noticed. In the ballet, of course, this is partly due to the varying influences of the dancers' personalities and styles. For instance, Clara's mother often comes off as a slightly stuffy matron, but in Caitlyn Mundth's interpretation, she was charming and vivacious — and Mundth danced her beautifully. In fact, Mundth was on all night, lighting up the stage in her other appearances as a Snowflake and a Flower. She was well-balanced in the first scene by Dameon Nagel as Clara's father.
Duke dance professor and Carolina Ballet resident teacher Tyler Walters appeared as Herr Drosselmeyer, and I didn't find his version fully satisfactory. He was slightly menacing, not just mysterious. I greatly prefer Marin Boieru's gentler, twinkling magic.
Herr Drosselmeyer's Nephew and the Nutcracker were performed by Pablo Javier Perez. He carried out these roles with his customary élan, and he was especially good in the scene where he re-enacts his battle with the Rat King – and Clara's crucial bravery – for the Sugar Plum Fairy. His nemesis was well-cast, too, for contrast: Perez, though bold, is not very tall, while Edgar Vardanian is quite tall and made a very scary rat. There was a split second when one felt that this time the Rat King would spear the Nutcracker Prince with his giant fork before Clara could hit him with her shoe.
The Land of Snow, where the Northwind dances with the Snowflakes, is an exquisite scene, always, and in this performance was made breathtaking by the graceful, cool dancing of Attila Bongar. Heather Eberhardt was lovely as the lead Snowflake. I look forward to seeing this dance again the next year as soon as it has ended.
Act II opens with the appearance of the smiling Sugar Plum Fairy — always a rapturous moment — and Lilyan Vigo received her due from the audience. Benevolent in her regal beauty, the Fairy presides over the sugar-fest that follows with perfect grace. All the set pieces were yummy, although one did feel the absence of former company member Christopher Rudd among the Candy Canes. Lara O'Brien makes a hot cup of coffee, and Margot Martin is as sassy as she is sweet as Ribbon Candy.
The Waltz of the Flowers was especially lovely in this performance. All the women moved so gracefully, their jewel-toned costumes glowing as Margaret Severin-Hansen floated among them as the Butterfly. This dance balances that of the Land of Snow in the overall scheme, but the Waltz does not end the act.
It is but the prelude to the unabashed beauty of the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier — transformed in Clara's dream from the frigid North Wind into a prince of loving warmth. There is probably not a truly bad version of this pas de deux in existence, but Weiss' is wonderful. Like love, it is delicate, elegant, bold, and dangerous, all at once, and Vigo and Bongar brought to life every nuance of the music with superb sensitivity.
And after the final waltz, the good Fairy bowed toward the pit, gesturing conductor Sturgis to the stage for a bow. The dancers, at least, seemed to appreciate the importance of the musicians.
Note: The run of the Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker will resume in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium on Dec. 16. See our calendar for details.
Additional note: A letter to the editor from M. Williams, concerning this review, is posted in our letters section.