Things age so fast in ballet. Dancers break down as quickly as other athletes. Costumes, frayed by a hundred lifts and a thousand pirouettes, lose sequins and sparkle. Sets begin to fade, crack and sag.
So when Hugh McColl came to Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux with a hefty donation – one meant to honor wife Jane Spratt McColl and provide something that would reach the largest possible audience – the artistic director of Charlotte Ballet knew what he wanted.
“People outside ballet don’t realize what an impact sets and costumes make,” says Bonnefoux. “Every year we have money to redo them in a small way, but we have never had the opportunity to build this show from the bottom up with great designers.”
You’ll see the results, which have been in preparation for 18 months, in December. The million-dollar “Nutcracker” debuts at Belk Theater Dec. 2-3 before heading to Charleston’s Gaillard Auditorium for a week. It returns to the Belk Dec. 13-23, with Christopher James Lees conducting the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra. (He’s new, too.)
Bonnefoux hired heavyweights he respected from his time dancing and choreographing for New York City Ballet: set designer Alain Vaes and costume designer Holly Hynes. He gave them free rein, with one concept in mind:
“It had to be bright, festive, like beautiful paper wrapping a present. Everything will be larger than life. It’s a strong feeling of fantasy, seen more from the point of view of a child than an adult. The tree should go up so high that if you are a kid, you can look under it and see all the toys.”
Hynes had just finished a new “Nutcracker” for Kansas City Ballet but vowed to give Charlotte its own production. She changed the holiday party to a fancy dress ball, with whimsical hats and frocks. Bonnefoux introduced a mirror, so each guest could stop for a moment of reflection and show off Hynes’ creations. “My thought is that Clara goes to bed with all of these fun colors and imaginative shapes, (then) dreams about them in Act 2,” she says.
“There are hidden references to Charlotte sports teams throughout the ballet, which was a lot of fun. The only artist I mimicked was the artist formally known as Prince. Can you find him?” (That’s called “an Easter egg” online or on a DVD: an unexpected or undocumented surprise.)
Vaes has designed seven Nutcrackers, but he dug for fresh ideas. “The Nutcracker is the dream of a child; there is only one way to interpret it,” he says. “I am a children’s book author and illustrator, and all my life I have worked hard to keep that sense of wonder that comes from childhood. (But) I am also a figurative artist with a surrealist tendency.”
Thus the massive hot-air balloon that now carries Clara and the Prince away at the end, or the oversized teacup in which the nefarious Mouse King makes his entrance. Bonnefoux asked Vaes to design a series of cutouts that both conceal action until we’re ready to see it and add verisimilitude. The Snow King and Queen will emerge from a field of deer; the toy soldiers will stream out of a castle; Mother Ginger will roll out in the upper floor of a house, out of which her brood will pour. (The old set will be sold eventually; the new one could potentially be rented out.)
The changes allowed Bonnefoux to adjust choreography, and he’s adding a gopak (a double-time Ukrainian folk dance) by Tchaikovsky to the divertissements in Act 2. (He had already introduced a piece of music from the ballet “Swan Lake” there.)
Everything about the show will be new to Hugh McColl, who chose Charlotte Ballet for the gift because his wife values dance most among all the arts.
“If you’d told me (before marriage) I would ever go to a ballet, I’d have laughed at you,” he says. But she took him to see Rudolf Nureyev decades ago in Spartanburg, made a dance fan of him – they recently went to New York to watch Misty Copeland perform – and his favorite part of the Charlotte Ballet season is now the adventurous Innovative Works. “Nutcracker,” though....
“I have never seen it,” he says. “I’m going this year for the first time.”
“The Nutcracker” – and more
Charlotte Ballet’s new production runs at Belk Theater Dec. 3-4, 13-18 and 21-23. Tickets run from $25 to $125. A “Night at the Nutcracker” Dec. 2 will transform Founder’s Hall into the Land of the Sweets, with activities for children and adults from 6 to 8 p.m.; guests will then see Act I of the new version. Tickets to that preview cost $150 for adults, $100 for children.
Charlotte Ballet will partner with Allegro Foundation, Autism Speaks and InReach on a sensory-friendly performance Dec. 21 at 1 p.m. The show will be abbreviated and the intermission extended; house lights will remain at half brightness; sound will be controlled through recorded music; guests may come and go; designated quiet areas will be available; extra space will be provided for wheelchairs; staff and volunteers will be trained to help kids with special needs. Details: 704-372-1000 or charlotteballet.org.
“Nutcrackers” abound at this time of year, and at least six other troupes are doing versions of them. To wit:
“The Nutcracker”: Charlotte Youth Ballet will pair young dancers with international artists in a production choreographed by Gay Porter and Bridget Young. Dec. 2-4. Halton Theater, 1206 Elizabeth Ave., $15-30. charlotteyouthballet.org.
“The Nutcracker”: City Youth Ballet offers Crystal Wellman of Ballet Evolution in Charleston as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Colombian guest artist Andres Neira as her Cavalier and 65 dancers from age 5 to adult from Stanly, Montgomery, Rowan and Cabarrus counties. Dec. 2-4. Stanly County Agri-Civic Center, 26032 Newt Road, Albemarle. $10 adults, $8 12 and under. uwharrieyoutharts.com.
“The Nutcracker”: Another traditional version, this one by Gaston Dance Theatre. Dec. 2-4, Gaston Day School, 2001 Gaston Day School Road, Gastonia, $16. gastondance.com.
“Clara’s Trip: A Cirque and Dance Nutcracker”: Caroline Calouche and Co. provide an airborne riff on the seasonal favorite, in which Clara injures her ankle and enters a dream of romance. Dec. 9-11. Booth Playhouse, 130 N. Tryon St. $25-$40. blumenthalarts.org.
“Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker”: The national tour stops at Ovens Auditorium, 2700 E. Independence Blvd., Dec. 11 at 3 p.m. Charlotte-area children were auditioned to dance small roles. $25-70. ovensauditorium.com.
“The Hip-Hop Nutcracker”: A dozen dancers, DJ, MC and digital scenery bring the traditional story and Tchaikovsky’s music to life in a contemporary urban setting. Dec. 27-30. Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St. $19.50-$49.50. blumenthalarts.org.