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Many of the people who jammed into Belk Theater on Saturday afternoon, nearly filling the top balcony to the rafters, were wondering the same thing as I was. Just how much can $1 million do to improve Charlotte Ballet's already stellar production of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker? There weren't any gaping holes that needed to be filled in when it came to the live music. The Charlotte Symphony has played the ballet score beautifully ever since Salvatore Aiello transplanted the dance troupe, originally known as North Carolina Dance Theatre, from Winston-Salem in 1990. Many of the musicians – and many of the orchestra's principals – who accompanied Aiello's setting for Nutcracker in the early years have played on through the many iterations of Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's choreography, which premiered in 2006. Every one of the players works up the same zest for the music as the year before. Nor can money buy a much finer array of dancers to fill the stage with agility and grace. Calling the dancers in Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II – not to mention the various levels of apprentices, trainees, and students from the company's Academy – the best in North Carolina may actually be an understatement.
Of course, the unprecedented gift had garnered plenty of positive publicity for the donors, the McColl family of Bank of America fame, and the worthy recipients. Unless you had completely ignored the Charlotte Observer for the past three months, you already knew that the McColl makeover would bring new Nutcracker costumes and new scenery to the Belk stage – and to lavishly renovated Gaillard Center in Charleston, where the Christmas classic will sojourn on December 10 and 11 before returning to Charlotte on December 13-23 for an additional 13 performances. I probably wasn't alone in bringing a show-me attitude to the unusual matinee premiere, for the costumes, the scenery, and the spectacle of Bonnefoux's Nutcracker, incrementally upgraded in its early years, had already proven to be quite formidable in their elegance and wit.
Holly Hynes' new set of costume designs gobbled up most of the prepublicity. Taking her inspiration from the Belle Epoque (1871-1914), Hynes and a team of 300 dressmakers in 15 states created 208 new costumes, each one costing as much as $6,000. As she confessed in one of the two infomercials I've seen, Hynes often had to rely on a bunch of polyester to offset the extravagance of the dancers' silks. The new scenery by Alain Vaës obviously took its inspiration from Bonnefoux's traditional Nutcracker scenario and Steven Rubin's set designs, seeming to depart more radically from Rubin's concepts as the story moved from the Stahlbaums' Christmas party to Clara's dreamy fantasies, developing a whole new motif of whimsy – life-size cutouts! – along the way.
Vaës wasn't working with a paltry budget, either. A whole new trim, teeming with red, covered the entire arc of the proscenium. The backlit scrim of the Staulbaums' town, more brightly lit by the lamplight gleaming through the windows of the homes than by the moonlight, greeted us like the frontispiece of a storybook. In its nocturnal grayness, the first exterior view of the Staulbaum home was very similar to Rubin's, but we were looking from a greater distance, seeing all that can be seen instead of merely the front façade. There was a little more humor in the gradual reveal of the magnificent interior, for the first of the new cutouts, a housemaid, was wheeled out to center stage to greet the guests. Onto its outstretched arms, the parade of guests flung coats, stoles, and scarves until this cunning portable closet was rolled away.
The imagery of the new Vaës scenery is bolder, more calculated to appear colossal, and the designer's drawings evoked for me two of the great masterworks of the Belle Epoque – War and Peace and Alice in Wonderland. Probably by sheer accident, the bold muscularity and the florid curves in some of the scenery reminded me of Fritz Eichenberg's memorable illustrations for the Heritage edition of Tolstoy's epic. But the evocation of Alice was quite intentional. After the party, when Clara nodded off, the Mouse King entered the scene on a broken teacup for his royal battle with the Nutcracker. Once Clara assisted her champion in his victory, the set changed briefly to a surreal and magical toyland, where the head of Clara's doll was as large as the castle. Very Alice.
The new scenery also brings fresh emphasis to numerous arrivals. Drosselmeyer's amazing gifts, Clara's Toy Doll and her brother Fritz's Toy Soldier, arrive on carts where each of them is flanked by two life-size cutouts of the same toy. Instead of lifting her massive skirts to reveal her periwigged Marzipan brood, Mother Ginger arrived on the second floor of her own gingerbread house, opening the front doors to let them out. But aside from the Mouse King's teacup and the flying balloon-boat that carries Clara off to the Land of Sweets – a galleon now large enough to transport two honeymooning couples – the most significant entrance was created for Herr Drosselmeyer. He arrived at the Stahlbaum soirée in his own clock tower! Mark Diamond may hold onto his annual stint as Drosselmeyer even after he's forced to arrive clutching a walker, for he still revels in reminding us with his comical antics that he himself is program director of Charlotte Ballet II and, more importantly, one of the company's potent line of resident choreographers. The Drosselmeyer shtick always looks like Diamond is doing his own thing, altering the routine every year – maybe every performance.
The new clock draws the spotlight in Mary Louise Geiger's new lighting design when Tchaikovsky's score tolls the midnight hour chez Stahlbaum. Using his new cutouts, Bonnefoux completely alters this segment in his choreography. In past years, spotlights flashed on a different costumed kid each time the bell tolled, unpredictably scanning the full width of the stage. Now there was simply a single-file parade of various cutouts, their manipulators hidden behind them. As we approached the final chiming, we had our first glimpse of the life-size girl doll that would enlarge to supernatural Alice-size in the yet-unseen scenery.
Geiger also teamed up with Hynes on some of the new magic. Like the opening cityscape, Vaës's new Land of Sweets builds on Rubin's previous concept of candy canes and gumdrops by putting us at a greater distance and increasing its scale. We could now see a huge skylight window in the rooftop dome opening up on a starry evening sky. At floor level below, the view also opens up to the outdoors, directing our gaze toward the horizon. Initially, there was a marked difference between the two views: it was still twilight on the horizon while it was already evening above. Into this unflattering light, we had our first glimpse of the newly minted backup dancers for the Coffee segment. Their bright red skirts, contrasting sharply with their dark blouses, seemed garish under the bright light between the little Marzipan and Candy Cane groups. But Geiger would dramatically lower the lights for Raven Barkley and Ben Ingel, so it was now (briefly) nighttime both on the horizon and above when they performed their sinuous Coffee pas de deux – and the perfection of the six backup dancers' glowing red skirts in this dimmed light redeemed them from the first impressions they had made. Their pink capes also made a difference.
In little ways and in big ways, Bonnefoux and his design team have heightened the wow factor in staging their spectacle. Just for the Tea segment in Act 2, a Chinese dragon drops down from the fly loft for a visit, and the Stahlbaums' Christmas tree no longer stops it miraculous growth when its piney peak hits the ceiling. Now when Drosselmeyer cast his spell, that growth continued on the upstage backdrop until the entire upstage wall was filled with what we imagined was a wee portion of the fabulously gigantic tree. You need not worry that such awesome stagecraft at all diminishes the exploits of the dancers. Aided by their revamped costumes, Charlotte Ballet still measured up to the superabundance surrounding them.
Rosie Morrison as Clara and Clay Houston as Fritz may be the most personable Stahlbaum kids I've seen. The precision and perfection of Sarah Hayes Harkins as the Sugar Plum Fairy will surely inspire little ballerinas who see Nutcracker for the first time. Harkins hits every beat with her elegant movements exactly on the nose, and her new partner, Drew Grant, is the picture of chivalry as her Cavalier, though the rookie needs to loosen up a bit. Chelsea Dumas and Ingel were a similarly ideal couple at the premiere as the Snow Queen and King, and Alessandra Ball James was luminous in her musicality as Rose in the "Waltz of the Flowers." Below tea green tops, Rose's dozen dancing flowers sported frilly three-tiered skirts, each tier a different tint of pink or fuchsia. Even a child could recognize the stems and petals of the flowers for what they were.
Except for Fritz, who is merely double cast, there's a dizzying rotation of four dancers for each of the major roles I just named. It would take an astronomer to predict when, where, and if this exact alignment will occur again, so let me merely add the names of the other dancers who will figure in the dizzying mix: Jamie Dee Clifton, Elizabeth Truell, and Sarah Lapointe among the ladies, James Kopecky and Juwan Alston among the gentlemen. The athleticism of the Charlotte Ballet men did shine through during the Act 2 procession of divertissements, counterbalancing the dominance of the ballerinas. Newcomer Peter Mazurowski sparkled in the Gopak section and, under that dragon, Humberto Ramazzina from the II troupe served charmingly – and deferentially – in Tea. Both of these men are in a rotation of three men who will dance their roles. So will Ryo Suzuki, whom I wasn't seeing for the first time as Candy Cane. I don't think I've seen Ryo's match in performing Candy's joyously asymmetrical leaps, but I'm sure parents and children of all ages will be pleased when Suzuki rotates to Tea and Gopak.