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Childhood's winter delights

The Carolina Ballet does right by Tchaikovsky, but will audiences follow?

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Carolina Ballet
The Nutcracker, Dec. 15-23, $15-$100
Monet Impressions, Jan. 11-14, $16-$55
Raleigh Memorial Auditorium
Tickets:
BalletLine: 719-0900, boxoffice@carolinaballet.com
Ticketmaster: 834-4000, www.ticketmaster.com

Carolina Ballet has it all—almost. Director and choreographer Robert Weiss has spent the last nine and a half years bringing to the Triangle a full-time ballet company many larger (and far better funded) arts markets would envy, one with outstanding soloists, a good corps de ballet, a fine orchestra and, most importantly, a visionary and passionate director.

Right now the company is in the midst of its sixth annual holiday production of The Nutcracker. Weiss's choreography is original, but the line of influence in his ballet leads straight back to St. Petersburg: As a child, Weiss danced in the party scene in the Nutcracker choreographed by George Balanchine, a seminal figure in American ballet, who as a boy danced in the Nutcracker of Marius Petipa, the work's first choreographer and the man generally acknowledged as the father of classical ballet. Weiss's company is rooted in the beginnings, and the very highest expression, of classical dance.

Friday night's performance attested to Weiss's innovative spirit and sense of humor. During the overture, out ran a large mouse and a very small mouse to stand on either side of a huge book: The Nutcracker. As the little mouse turned the huge leaves, we read the list of major donors—a sly way to incorporate an acknowledgment of financial support into the action itself—and then the ballet's backstory, about the Christmas Eve party at which the magician Drosselmeyer will present little Clara with a nutcracker who comes to life.

The Nutcracker's perennial appeal stems from both Tchaikovsky's sparkling score (though he thought it an inferior work, audiences have always blithely disagreed) and the charm of the series of dances through which the story plays out. This storytelling is really Weiss's forte, and his choreography's sweet playfulness works with the production's gorgeous costumes and elaborate stage decoration to create a fantastic spectacle. As Clara falls asleep in front of the Christmas tree, before our eyes it grows tall, taller, tallest and the walls of the cozy parlor draw up out of sight to reveal a starry, deep-blue northern sky, as if the fir had been restored to its natural majesty in its outdoor home. We are off to a land of childhood's winter delights: snowfalls and sweets.

Three dancers in particular made for an unforgettable evening. Beijing-trained Hong Yang, one of the Snowflakes in Act 1 and the Butterfly in Act 2's "Waltz of the Flowers," had the most beautiful port de bras, or carriage of the arms, I've ever seen in this company—fluid and sculpted, every gesture flowing unbroken from sternum to fingertip. And Margaret Severin-Hansen as the Sugar Plum Fairy was a revelation. Severin-Hansen's technique has always been stellar, but on Friday her dancing held a sense not just of speed and grace, but also of languor and repose, hinting at a new maturity. The expressiveness of her pas de deux in Act 2 with the superb Alain Molina took one's breath away.

The performance was not all perfection. The corps de ballet was oddly out of sync, seeming to be both falling behind and rushing ahead at the same time. And Severin-Hansen's precise and delicate footwork during the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" would have perfectly matched the tinkling bells of the celeste—if the overmiking (a persistent problem in Memorial) hadn't made the thing sound like a xylophone in a marching band. But both flaws are fixable, and with any luck they won't feature in subsequent performances.

So what does Carolina Ballet lack? It provides family entertainment in the very best sense of the phrase, and next month, in a smart tie-in to the wildly successful exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the company has a program titled Monet Impressions, featuring two original works by Weiss and guest choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett.

It's hard to miss the puzzled frustration in Weiss's voice when he wonders why people aren't "flocking" to the ballet. A small audience, however appreciative (Weiss says that 90 percent of people who come once to the Carolina Ballet come back), means a smaller pool of potential subscribers and donors. Weiss can do only so much with his limited budget, and we're starting to see the strain: Some of the ballets are being presented with recorded instead of live music.

The Triangle is approaching an important crossroads. We now have three major performing institutions—the North Carolina Symphony, the Opera Company of North Carolina and Carolina Ballet—whose directors all have the energy, dedication and artistic vision to bring exciting works to our local stages. What these groups are missing is a secure economic base to allow them to grow and mature. For the great entertainment we crave, we need them. To bring that entertainment to life, they need us—and our wallets.

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