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The Stevens Center was packed to capacity, the large orchestra filled the pit under the stage, and the seats were stuffed with parents and wide-eyed children with shiny shoes and colorful sweaters, all eagerly awaiting the magic of The Nutcracker, the annual presentation of the prestigious University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Since the mid-twentieth century, The Nutcracker has been one of the most anticipated events of the holiday season. The ballet by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann as retold by Alexander Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers, among other works). In the story, life-sized mechanical dolls (automatons) are brought to the Christmas party by the strange but loveable inventor, Mr. Drosselmeyer, assisted by his nephew, Fritz. These life-sized "toys" march and dance to entertain the guests while the children watch spell-bound as one feat of magic follows another.
After the party is over, at the stroke of midnight, the story becomes a dreamy fantasy where mice battle toy soldiers and our heroine, Clara, saves the day! The scene magically shifts to a snowy clearing in the woods and Drosselmeyer's party gift, a wooden nutcracker painted to look like a toy soldier, magically turns into Fritz.
The second act takes place in a magical candy-land with all kinds of imaginary characters, who in Tchaikovsky's time were real people bearing real foods from far-away countries (which today's TV-viewers see in almost any newscast). Chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, marzipan from the South of France and even the Czar's own Cossack soldiers are brought to life. The climax of the evening remains the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Of course, in the modern age of robots, drones, artificial brains, and remote broadcasts, such oddities are wonders no more!
Ever since the change in choreography in 2009, the "Snow" pas de deux has disturbed me by the mismatch between the serene calm of the music and the high energy level of the action on stage. This evening's new choreography makes a move toward resolving the issue by starting the duet after the beginning of the music.
The "Pink" pas de deux was superbly danced by Ava Grace Williams (Sugar Plum Fairy) and Sam Mayer (Cavalier). (What a pity to have cut the flashy ending to the Sugar Plum solo.)
The UNCSA student orchestra was in great shape, conducted effectively by guest conductor Jiannan Cheng who is a faculty member at Rowan University in Salisbury, NJ. Exquisite staccato tonguing in the clarinet section (Clara Ruiz Medina and Trent Smart) and a stunning harp solo (Grace Ludke) were highlights from the pit.
Unfortunately, the Stevens Center continues to have problems with uneven amplification (heavy timpani, basses, and violins, and insufficient cello) which changes noticeably when the curtain rises. The hall was originally designed to need no amplification, which even in the best of times modifies the sound of the orchestra. The children of the Piedmont Youth Chorus (who did need amplification) were unevenly miked and covered up by the sound of the orchestra.
The new UNCSA presentation is choreographed by Ilya Kozadayev, on the faculty of the UNCSA School of Dance. Drawing on the rich tradition of the original 1892 Russian production, some of which still enriches the current show, Kozadayev seems to have used rather strict criteria to shape this season's presentation. If one supposes three models from which to choose – the story first, the music first, or the dance first – it becomes clear that dance was the governing factor. Gone is most of the pantomime (where the characters onstage walk through the action, not controlled by choreography) as well as the simplistic children's march (Act 1) and the silly but beloved Mother Ginger with her brood of children dancing to French and Russian nursery rhymes.
The result is a shorter performance which omits several familiar characters and musical movements as the choreographer condenses the story. Freezing the action during the party scene into a scant dozen snapshots shortened it considerably, and at first the effect looked more like technical lighting glitches than a novel dramatic technique.
The usually lengthy party scene with childish pranks and mostly pantomimed action accompanied by Tchaikovsky's score had been shortened to a few minutes, eliminating the historical reference to mechanical dolls (wind-up toy soldier, Harlequin's dance with Columbine) and their spectacular costumes, as well as the famous March of Toy Soldiers and the difficult-to-stage tug-of-war. Veteran Tchaikovsky lovers will miss this great music and those costumes, but newcomers will never know the difference!
The ballet will be repeated eight times in the next two weeks. See sidebar for details.
In the interest of full disclosure, this reviewer has conducted several hundred performances of The Nutcracker ballet, including many at the UNCSA.