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After fifteen years of presenting the same old Christmas ballet, you might think it would get a little old. Honestly, that's what I thought. going into this performance. Thankfully, never have I been more wrong.
Since its 2011-12 season, Carolina Ballet has been incorporating "new magic" into the 1892 ballet with music by Peter Tchaikovsky and a story by Marius Petipa. This year was the culmination of years of dedication, planning, and rehearsing by a small army of people, each and every one of whom contributed immensely to the overall show. From illusionist Rick Thomas to lighting designer Ross Kolman to conductor Alfred E. Sturgis, to all of the casts – there are about three full sets of rotating casts of children from the Triangle who step in to play the Children, Soldiers, Snowflakes, Truffles, and others – everyone showed exemplary artistry.
What I loved most about this performance was how Robert Weiss' choreography was not only a beautiful representation of the quintessential Russian ballet style but also gave the story life and realistic action. The party guests arrive at the Stahlbaum house cheerfully, reminding us how much joy there can be in Christmas Eve. The fathers dancing with their daughters are joyful and tender, and even Grandpa (Reighner Bethune) gets to put on his dancing shoes, to the equal delight and chagrin of the guests. Clara, played by Rachel Robinson, and the Nutcracker Prince, played by Gage Gordon, are delightful young dancers who captured all of the joy, wonder, and imagination of their roles and did a wonderful job.
Even some of the more fantastical characters are three-dimensional: the glorious Northwind (Pablo Javier Perez) and beautifully athletic Snowflakes ripple effortlessly across the stage, characterizing both the excitement and slight danger of winter. The Sugar Plum Fairy, played by Margaret Severin-Hansen, is charming, seemingly an enthralled and proud mother of her scrumptious kingdom. Her headlining dance is perfect but human, accompanied by beautiful strings and sonorous winds. I must also acknowledge Nancy Whelan's lovely celeste playing, without which The Nutcracker simply would not be The Nutcracker.
I urge those of you who have not seen The Nutcracker –or those who have in the past but have refrained during the last several years (because, after all, isn't it the same story every year?) – to consider reserving tickets now. This production makes the Triangle's arts scene look amazing. The sets, designed by Jeff A.R. Jones, are gorgeous and dazzling, complete with cheerful fireplaces that really crackle and shimmer, and with twinkling stars, tempting sweets piled up into towering castles, lovely lighting, and real magic to match.
Magic tricks and brightly colored paint aside, the choreography and music are just as dazzling. The 1800s Western-Europe-inspired costuming is beautiful and helps to showcase the fabulous dancing. Most notable are the stylized costumes of the Arabian Coffee, Asian Tea, Russian Candy Canes, and Ballerina Ribbon Candy. Mother Ginger, played by Davy Nethercutt in a larger-than-life dress designed by Kerri Martinsen (from which emerge the acrobatic Gingerbread Cookies) was one of my favorite costumes.
The orchestra is also to be applauded for continuing to imbue music that is over a century old with enduring wonder and magic. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for the sudden synthesizer sounds in the dance in The Land of Snow. The echoing, buzzing sounds (whether they were over-amplified or not) knocked the illusion of magical winter wonderlands down just a notch.
This production was hosted in Chapel Hill by Carolina Performing Arts, but Nutcracker will also be shown at the Durham Performing Arts Center and Raleigh's Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts. Featuring local guests including Sugarland Bakery, Chirba Chirba's amazing dumpling food truck, and a book drive by Book Harvest, this event was a community affair that drew audiences of all ages – some in tiny, adorable Christmas dresses – to see this monumental success.