NCDT's gentle 'Nutcracker' remains as sweet as ever

Some versions of "The Nutcracker" are about the dangers that await the innocent or the first sexual awakenings of a girl or even the hallucinatory pleasures of a feverish dream.

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux's is about pure joy - and, perhaps, even more about inclusion.

North Carolina Dance Theatre's artistic director takes his cue there from New York City Ballet. He and associate artistic director Patricia McBride danced for George Balanchine, who packed NYCB's "Nutcracker" with students from his School of American Ballet.

Bonnefoux has done the same with NCDT's students, from tiny angels carrying candles up through robust young women dancing harder choreography in the party scene.

Even the second-act pieces in the Land of Sweets, often allocated only to soloists, all include youngsters. Thus Kara Wilkes and Justin VanWeest step lithely through the sensuous coffee duet, while girls behind them on pillows provide willowy accompaniment.

The level of achievement among dancers not from the main company (or even the secondary company, NCDT 2) is high. Corps members alongside the ethereal Rose of Alessandra Ball never let their petals droop in the Waltz of the Flowers. (All dancers named were in the opening-night cast; casts change show to show.)

Bonnefoux takes us to a land of sweetness even before we go to the Land of Sweets, as the first act is free of any disturbing elements. Drosselmeyer (entertaining Mark Diamond) is imperious and prankish rather than scary, and the mice who battle the Nutcracker and his soldiers are harmless cuties.

Clara (vivacious Kira Greer-Rice) doesn't even have to throw her shoe at the Mouse King; she dozes instead in an oversized chair through much of the combat. In fact, the whole narrative after the party is presented as her dream, controlled by Drosselmeyer. But it's a dream where fears and anxieties never peep through.

The highlight of the show Friday came as snow whirled to Tchaikovsky's mysterious music at the end of Act One. Wilkes and Addul Manzano danced with clean lines and regal authority as the Snow Queen and King; the corps moved gracefully around Steven Rubin's bewitching blue set; the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra, which had gotten off to a clunky start in the party music, reached a higher plateau and stayed there under William Henry Curry's baton.

The second act gave Nutcracker Prince Jordan Leeper a chance to glow a bit in the role he did last year, and the soloists in the numbers from the famous suite - who were also mostly returnees from 2009 - gave polished performances.

The energy dipped when the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier appeared, through no fault of the performers. Traci Gilchrest and David Ingram had few chances to shine, because his variation was cut and their duet lacked excitement.

But the finale restored the sweet coating to this shiny lollipop of a show. In Bonnefoux's hands, this has always been an evening that shows off the kids in his care and dazzles the kids in ours. The ones around me left with twinkles in their eyes.