Years ago, a teacher took a little girl who’d never left the confines of Cabarrus County to an N.C. Dance Theatre performance of “The Nutcracker” in Charlotte. She’d told the girl about the beauties of classical ballet and shown her pictures of ballerinas in their delicate outfits.
Through Act 1, the girl leaned over to ask, “Where are the tutus? Where are the tutus?” Suddenly the setting switched from Clara’s house to the Land of Snow, and she bent forward, saucer-eyed. “The tutus!” she whispered. A love affair was born.
That’s the point of “Nutcracker” and the reason it comes back year after year to Belk Theater.
For all the party hijinks, comically mischievous mice and dancing desserts in the Land of Sweets, we don’t come to this brief ballet to watch steps – enjoyable as they are in Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s buoyant choreography – or listen to live accompaniment by the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, though it’s a pleasure to hear them play for NCDT. (I wish some rich patron would make that possible more often.)
We come to fall in love with dance all over again, to revive memories of the first time we saw a prince go airborne or a prima ballerina beguile us with a graceful gesture. For many of us, “Nutcracker” paved the path to a lifelong appreciation of the art. (It was the first full-length classical ballet I saw – at New York City Ballet in the 1970s, around the time Bonnefoux and Patricia McBride were stars there.)
A few things change from year to year in Bonnefoux’s version. This time, Grey Seal Puppets provided new heads for the Mouse King and Nutcracker. The former, now a vain and dapper dandy, won’t scare even the littlest balletgoer, and he fits better with Bonnefoux’s light-hearted approach.
Two new students will dance young Clara and Fritz at some performances; I saw Celeste Borman and Eamon Murphy, who did the parts last year. (Casts alternate from night to night; for instance, there are four pairings of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier. I got David Morse and Sarah Hayes Watson, pirouetting until your head spun.)
One important newcomer went unseen: Roger Kalia, the CSO’s assistant conductor, was in the pit. The piece means hard labor for musicians, because most play almost nonstop; an evening of “Nutcracker” is like two 45-minute Tchaikovsky symphonies back to back. Kalia didn’t let the pace lag but didn’t rush the dancers, either.
And there are new adult faces onstage, two of whom stood out for me: Chelsea Dumas, who made a glittering Snow Queen and stepped in for Anna Gerberich as Rose, and Amanda Smith, who slithered through the sinuous Coffee pas de deux with Ben Ingel.
Speaking of stepping in, that gray-wigged grandmother in the party scene was never there before. She’s NCDT principal Jamie Dee Clifton, who injured herself but wanted to be part of the extravaganza; her small, tottery steps may not just be good acting, and she adds to the feeling that we’re watching an enormous family reunion.
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