New and improved Nutcracker production a singular success

by Keith Barber

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ production of The Nutcracker offers a rare treat for fans of the traditional Christmastime ballet. The annual showpiece for UNCSA’s schools of Dance, Design and Production features a new spin on Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece. Nutcracker has been reconceived by Dean of Dance Ethan Stiefel in its 2009 incarnation, and the lasting impression is a show of enormous power and artistic excellence.

This production of The Nutcracker is a school production in every sense of the word. Musical Director Ransom Wilson conducts an orchestra composed of students and a significant number of UNCSA alumni. Traditionally, the Winston-Salem Symphony has performed Tchaikovsky’s familiar score for the school production. Wilson’s direction of the student orchestra during Opening Night was nothing short of magical.

Stiefel’s vision of Nutcracker includes new staging, choreography, costume design, production design and lighting.

Literally hundreds of UNCSA students, alumni and faculty invested their talents and creative energies.

The curtain rises on Act I as guests of the Silverhaus family begin arriving for their annual Christmas party. As the Silverhaus children, 15-year-old Clara and 11-year-old Fritz, enjoy the evening’s festivities with their friends, Herr Drosselmeyer arrives. Drosselmeyer introduces Clara to his 16-year-old nephew Sascha and the instantaneous spark is lit. Herr Drosselmeyer entertains the children with magic tricks then presents life-sized wind-up dolls that dance around the stage. Sascha, played by Miles Sollars-White, presents Clara, played by Haley Miller, with the nutcracker doll. Fritz is jealous of Clara’s Christmas present and tries to wrest it away from her, causing the nutcracker to fall to the floor and break.

As the families depart for the evening, Clara and Sascha share a moment enhanced greatly by the magical spell Drosselmeyer casts over them. Thus begins Clara and Sascha’s magical journey. Under Stiefel’s direction, the audience enjoyed the most amazing treat of the holiday season. Act I concluded with the poetic snowflakes twirling in precise rhythm, like professional dancers from a 1940’s Hollywood musical. The curtain fell and the audience voiced its approval.

Act II opened with Clara’s trip to the Land of Sweets.

The audience, respectful and expectant, watched as the Sugar Plum Fairy took center stage. Gillian Murphy of the American Ballet Theatre played the role with a perfect balance of strength and grace. The audience then watched with approving eyes as Sascha Radetsky, playing the role of the Cavalier, joined Murphy, Miller and Sollars-White in an opening dance number. Then the parade of entertainers began and the collaborative efforts of all involved in Nutcracker were on display. The choreography of Stiefel, Nigel Burley, Warren Conover, and Susan McCullough was outstanding, along with the colorful costumes designed by Campbell Baird. Howard Jones’ scenic elements and lighting designer Brad Fields’ artistic touch added greatly to the dozen individual performances. The Arabian sequence, which featured a dancer in silhouette, was especially memorable.

In the Grand Pas de Deux, the final duet between Murphy and Radetsky — an American Ballet Theatre alum — elicited shouts of “Bravo!” from the audience. Then, nearly 40 dancers took the stage in the grand finale.

Drosselmeyer then breaks the spell and brings Clara and Sashca back to the Christmas party. The two young adventurers parted with great reluctance as the curtain fell and the audience rose immediately to its feet in gratitude for a production that captured the essence of Tchaikovsky’s timeless Christmas ballet.

wanna go? UNCSA’s Stevens Center 405 West Fourth Street, Winston-Salem