I believe it is safe to say that North Carolina Dance Theatre’s (NCDT) production of The Nutcracker, which opened on December 9 at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center’s Belk Theater, is the year’s most beautiful arts event in the Charlotte area. Certainly, The Nutcracker does not challenge or provoke. It does not propel audiences through a cathartic range of emotions, as does Il Trovatore (presented by Opera Carolina in October), or invite them to ponder judgment and redemption, as does Mozart’s Requiem (which the Oratorio Singers of Charlotte performed wonderfully in November). Neither does it examine with compassion and insight the intimate lives of a people as does the art of Romare Bearden (on exhibition at The Mint Museum through January 8).
But for sheer grace and sumptuous beauty, this production is hard to beat. Every single one of the 100+ human beings on stage (including the mice) is lovely to look at. Steven Rubin’s set design, in creamy pastels and velveteen softness, delights in the opening holiday party and the Act II Land of Sweets; the Act I Land of Snow glistens and sparkles in frosty blue. Likewise, the costumes, primarily by Bjorn Winnblad, are colorful and elegant, and the entire ballet glows under Nata McGaha’s magical lighting.
And, of course, the dancing is sublime. Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the company’s artistic director, choreographed this version, which NCDT began presenting several years ago, and the choreography is as light and bright as the snowflakes that fall from the sky in the second half of Act I. NCDT is a versatile company, performing a range of choreography that includes Balanchine, Twyla Tharp, and Dwight Rhoden, the company’s resident choreographer. The Nutcracker provides a rare opportunity to see some of the finest dancers in the state perform the classical ballet that Bonnefoux grew up with in the Paris Opera Ballet (a new production of The Sleeping Beauty in March will serve as another platform).
The principals were excellent. Alessandra Ball and Addul Manzano exuded grace and nobility as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Ball’s seemingly infinite pirouettes and Manzano’s fan leaps – and an extraordinary lift – thrilled the audience in their final pieces. Sarah Hayes Watson, as both the Snow Queen and in the Chinese “Tea,” is a particularly vivid and spritely dancer. Anna Gerberich, who led the Act II Flowers as “Rose,” joined NCDT as a precocious child of 15 in 2004 and has grown into a mature dancer of exceptional elegance, with marvelous whipping turns. Melissa Anduiza and Pete Walker simmered in the sensually exotic Arabian “Coffee.”
But this production, as thoroughly professional as is it, showcases the entire NCDT realm, from the young children and the adolescents enrolled in the NCDT School of Dance, to the second company, NCDT2. And they are not just props. Bonnefoux generously gives them significant and challenging choreography and ample stage time.
There were a few moments now and then when the ensemble was not quite pristine – the Snowflakes’ arms sometimes floated at varying degrees and angles, and the “Marzipan” trio fell out of unison at one point – but on the whole the entire group of more than 100 performers was terrific. The young Blake Johnston was lovely as Clara, a pretty dancer with good musical sense and a convincing actress; Eamon Murphy – just a little more than half her size – created amusing mischief as her annoying little brother.
The difference between watching a ballet with live music and watching one with canned music is like the difference between seeing Michelangelo’s David in real life and in a photograph. It is a tactile, 3D difference; the music creates a distinct texture that can be felt as well as heard. Charlotte ballet lovers are fortunate the Charlotte Symphony still performs NCDT’s Nutcracker every year, bringing Tchaikovsky’s evergreen score (and I truly never tire of hearing it) to full, pulsing life.
While many musicians in the orchestra have played this music multiple times, this was Charlotte Symphony Associate Conductor Jacomo Bairos’s first Nutcracker ever, and he did an admirable job. Tempos were buoyant; the strings were sweet and lyrical; the brass was gallant. Rich Harris, acting principal trumpet, deserves special praise for his excellent solo in “Tiramisu,” the Neapolitan dance borrowed from Swan Lake.
Christmastime offers many opportunities to see The Nutcracker in a variety of productions. Each surely has its charm, but NCDT’s dazzling show is in a league of its own.
For a review of the UNCSA's Winston-Salem production of Nutcracker, click here.