Nutcracker still a holiday treat after all these years

by Keith Barber


The best way to enjoy the University of North Carolina School of the Arts’ production of The Nutcracker is to watch the face of a child during the performance of Tchaikovsky’s fantastic Christmas tale. The wonder and amazement reflected in her eyes mirrors that of Clara Silverhaus, the central character in the 120-year old story. During the Dec. 5 performance at the Stevens Center in downtown Winston-Salem, a number of children dressed in pink tutus in honor of the Snow Queen could be spotted among the hundreds in attendance. Then UNCSA Orchestra, under the direction of Charles Barker, began the familiar overture and the magical journey to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairies had begun.


In the opening sequence of the Silverhaus family’s annual Christmas party, the child performers did a marvelous job under the direction of Ethan Stiefel, dean of the UNCSA School of Dance. The pivotal moment in the scene comes when Clara and Herr Drosselmeyer’s 16-year-old nephew, Sascha, meet for the first time. The familiar unfolding of the Christmas party was accentuated by the marvelous performances of Haley Miller as Clara and Connor Scott Cohen as Sascha. The 24 performers who composed the party guests also performed extremely well, and much of the credit goes to Stiefel’s eye for detail. Stiefel undoubtedly is aware that The Nutcracker represents one of UNCSA’s richest traditions, and each year the challenge is to create an original experience for those who have made it a holiday rite.

The school has performed The Nutcracker for more than 40 years, and that legacy comes shining through in the scenic and costume design of Campbell Baird and the choreography of Stiefel, Nigel Burley, Warren Conover and Susan McCullough. During the opening sequence, the dance of the fathers and daughters proved particularly outstanding as the dancers displaying near perfect timing.

Then, Herr Drosselmeyer, played by Douglas Gawriljuk, arrives at the party and the magic begins.

Drosselmeyer performs several magic tricks, including the presentation of three life-size wind-up dolls — the Columbine, Harlequin and Toy Soldier. More importantly, Drosselmeyer introduces Clara to Sascha and the attraction is obvious. Haley Miller, in the role of Clara, and Connor Scott Cohen, as Sascha, did an admirable job of playing the timeless teenage characters at the heart of The Nutcracker.

As the party continues, Drosselmeyer passes out toys to the children, including a nutcracker doll for Clara. As the families begin leaving, Clara and Sascha say their goodbyes and Drosselmeyer seizes on the opportunity to cast a magic spell on the teenage couple.

What follows is a wonderful voyage through the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairies and some of the finest ballet dancing ever to grace the Stevens Center stage. More than 100 talented performers brought UNCSA’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Christmas tale to life and the magical spell cast by Drosselmeyer rubbed off on the audience.

Clara dreams of the Christmas tree growing to a height of 26 feet and the appearance of a life-sized Nutcracker, played by Cohen. After the Nutcracker toy soldier defeats the Mouse King, it’s off to the land of the Snow Queen. As silver snowflakes begin to fall, the Snow Queen, played with great virtuosity by Christina Watson, and the Snow King, played with grace and athleticism by Dave Naquin, command the stage and bring Act I to a dramatic conclusion.

During Act II, Clara and Sascha are entertained like a king and queen by a succession of dance troupes in the sequence known as “The Divertissements.” Baird’s amazing costumes and Stiefel’s top-notch direction and choreography during the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, Mirlitons, Ginger Snaps and Flowers numbers is enhanced by flawless execution. Watson and Naquin then set the bar of artistic excellence at a new high during their solo routines. As Watson danced in her lavish pink costume, a hush fell over the audience. Among the younger patrons in attendance, one could observe a look of absolute wonder and amazement.

The finale was a feast for the eyes and represented the moment when both children and adults suspended their disbelief and succumbed to the power of Tchaikovsky’s magical story. As Clara and Sascha return to reality and embrace one final time, they are reluctant to say goodbye. After a wonderful performance by the talented UNCSA cast and crew, the audience could relate to that emotion.