Grace, athleticism and the power of music unite in The Nutcracker

by Lenise Willis

When I mentioned to a former colleague that I would be reviewing a ballet, he quipped, “I couldn’t image a more boring way to spend an evening.” I was a little taken back by his doubtful response, especially since he is such a music and theater enthusiast. Had he forgotten that ballets actually marry the two things he loves the most?

For more than 40 years, UNC School of the Arts has dazzled holiday audiences with The Nutcracker.

But I must admit that I, myself, hadn’t seen a production of The Nutcracker since I was a tap-dancing soldier in the eighth grade. Back then, when I was a young, aspiring dancer, my mother and I made it a Christmas tradition.

Since then, however, it seems I had fallen victim to the same widely shared view as my friend — that ballet was lackluster. Thankfully, UNC School of the Art’s production of The Nutcracker revived my love for ballet, the orchestra and the craving to once again stand high on my toes.

One of the benefits of UNCSA’s production is that they have invaluable access to an array of talents, utilizing the school of dance, as well as the school of design and production and the school of music.

Together, the departments not only disproved the idea that ballet is dull and tiresome, but they brought it to life with the same grandeur one would expect from a theatrical production.

Tchaikovsky’s iconic music, performed live by the UNCSA orchestra, reverberates through your body and adds personality and drama to the movement on stage, emphasizing each spin, high kick, plié and arabesque.

The set, designed by Howard C. Jones, who has also styled many sets for Greensboro’s Triad Stage, is vividly beautiful, and the stage lighting complemented their design and made them seem even bolder.

Throughout the show, numerous backdrops drop in and out to change the setting. Each one is painted in great detail to create an 1800s mansion complete with numerous grand chandeliers, a Mediterranean street and a sugary land of wonder.

The most astonishing stage effect is just before the great battle between the Nutcracker and the Rat King. In order to shrink the audience down to mouse size to watch this “tiny” battle, the Christmas tree, underneath which the fight takes place, grows before our eyes.

Made up of movable panels, the tree grows not just up, but up and out and up and out, until the whole stage is framed with greenery and ornaments as if we’re sitting beneath the tree among the presents and toys. It was beautiful, surprising and exciting.

And of course it’s attractive, too. True to the art of ballet, each dancer mastered grace, power and flexibility. Watching the performance, I imagined I was in as much awe as the Greeks or Romans were over the perfect human form.

Each dancer is so eloquent and soft, but a quick glance at the bulging muscles shaped by Spandex remind us that these dancers are athletes, too. And these lifts and spins are no easy feat.

Guest artists Gillian Murphy, from the American Ballet Theatre, and Gonzalo Garcia, from the  New York City Ballet, pair well together as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Her Cavalier. Their pirouettes seem to go on for hours, and it’s thrilling to watch her jump and land straight onto his shoulders. They will perform an encore performance Thursday.

Another thing that shouldn’t be forgotten is that the production is one of the world, featuring a Western European home, Arabian gypsies, “drunk” Russians, and Chinese and Spanish dancers, too.

It’s also funny. Yes, funny. The baby mice are adorable as they sneak and steal chocolates, and the Russian dancers “stumble” over a few laughing points, right on cue.

Dramatic, consuming and utterly beautiful, The Nutcracker will raise your spirits… and make you want to hit the gym.

Ballet enthusiasts already know about the special experience in store from UNCSA’s annual holiday production, but the performance isn’t limited to that niche. Anyone who enjoys lush, beautiful and sparkly costumes, moving music, love stories, or even just the spectacle of lean, muscular bodies, will walk away with a little magic in their eyes. !


UNCSA’s The Nutcracker runs Thursday through Sunday, Dec. 22 at the Stevens Center, located at 405 Fourth St. in Winston-Salem. Tickets are $25-$75. Call 336.721. 1945 or visit for tickets and more information.