For many families, going to see the ballet The Nutcracker is a holiday staple on par with singing carols, drinking eggnog and shopping on Black Friday.
As with any tradition, there will always be Grinches who claim boredom from repetition. However, the Carolina Ballet's The Nutcracker is far from the usual, made in collaboration with an illusionist for a creative take on a familiar classic. It's a delight even for those who frequently say "bah, humbug" this time of year.
Some people complain that the story of The Nutcracker is hard to follow, as it consists of two distinct acts. The first shows families enjoying Christmas as Uncle Drosselmeyer gives a nutcracker to Clara, the main character. In Clara's dreams, the toy comes to life, saves her from an army of mice and takes her to the kingdom of sweets, where they are greeted by dancing snowflakes. The entire second act features members of the kingdom.
The structure of Carolina Ballet's production sticks to tradition but is generally easy to follow. The social dancing of the first act appropriately incorporates European folk movements, consisting of kaleidoscopic formations that appear ostentatious at times. The dance highlights of the show came in the more polished second act. From the energetic Candy Cane dancers who displayed Russian-inspired kicks and leaps to the Spanish Hot Chocolate dancers who incorporated Flamenco-style arms, the choreography was a high point. Among the sweets, the gingerbread children stole the show with clean tour jetés (turning leaps) and walking handstands.
But what makes Carolina Ballet's production really stand out involves a touch of magical inspiration. Illusionist Rick Thomas, based in Las Vegas, has lent some of his magic to The Nutcracker since 2011. This year features a new multi-part illusion replacing the previous one of a levitating angel. We will describe it now, so skip the next paragraph if you'd rather be surprised.
In the new illusion, one of the harlequins gets inside a large drum and Drosselmeyer closes the drumheads. There is a slit in the front where gifts come out. Upon opening the drum, an angel appears in place of the harlequin and hands a star to Drosselmeyer, who covers the star with a cloth, only for it to turn into gold dust and reappear at the top of the Christmas tree.
This new trick was well worth the effort, astonishing the audience. Past illusions recurred as well, including a jewelry-box ballerina coming to life, a person being turned into a 2-D poster and back, and a life-size nutcracker appearing from a stack of gifts.
With a performing arts background, Thomas is more than just a Vegas magician; he seamlessly blends illusions into a dance performance. When we spoke with him by phone, he explained, "Carolina Ballet is great ballet, but The Nutcracker is also a family tradition, and that added magical factor entertains everyone from all walks of life." Thomas calls his work on The Nutcracker a personal career highlight.
The added prominence of Drosselmeyer's mystical character in this production clarifies the storyline. The pacing of the illusions enhances the experience, in that the audience keeps guessing what other tricks Drosselmeyer might have up his sleeve.
Magic, humor and artistry combine in this impressive production. At DPAC, families of all backgrounds enjoyed the show while eating snacks from the concession stand, and children were raving about how "awesome" the production was.
Now the show moves on to UNC's Memorial Hall and then to Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. With a little extra magic this year, Carolina Ballet's The Nutcracker is a must for this holiday season.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Masters of illusion."