Romance and beauty from the frozen steppe

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More than a dozen snowflake dancers create a winter flurry at UNCSA's production of the Nutcracker, at the Stevens Center through Dec. 21.

by Brian Clarey

I haven’t seen The Nutcracker since I was about 5 years old. My grandparents dragged me there one frigid evening in Morristown, NJ in observance of the holiday tradition, and I remember that I was not into it. I may have cried — not because of the tender innocence shared by Clara and Sascha, but because I wanted to go home and watch TV.

But I sat through it, and that was that. Anytime anyone wanted to talk about a Christmas viewing of Tchaikovsky’s most prominent contribution to the public domain, I was covered.

But my views on ballet have matured since kindergarten. [Great line] Ballet is basically the sports of the art world, combining movement and music with the kind of personal expression that is at the core of everything beautiful.

That, and my daughter wanted to go.

So we booked a couple seats at the UNC School of the Arts annual production at the Stevens Center — the best ticket in town, as far as The Nutcracker goes.

It’s a student-run affair, from the programs to the lighting, with the sort of production values that are to be expected from the state’s pre-eminent art school.

A full student orchestra works out the score down in the old-school pit at the Stevens Center. Students work the lights and scenery. Save for the children’s roles and a few special performers, students make up the entire cast, which numbers in the dozens.

Their challenge is the same every year: Make this 125-year-old relic not only live up to a century of tradition, but bring something new so people will come back.

So there are fabulous costumes, particularly those adorning the army of mice, who bring flashes of contemporary choreography to the show as well.

For this first weekend’s performance, UNCSA recruited Whitney Jensen and Yury Yanowsky, both world-class dancers and soloists with the Boston Ballet. Their presence lent an extra bit of exuberance to the holiday crowd. And anytime a world-class anything comes to town, it’s worth getting out to take a look.

Clara and Sascha meetat a family Christmas party, where a weird uncle bestows the nutcracker on the young girl. Most of the First Act is taken with the antics of the children, closing with the administration of magic dust by said weird uncle.

A weird uncle takes the kids on a fantastic journey.
A weird uncle takes the kids on a fantastic journey.

The Second Act sees Clara and Sascha transported to a magical land where they do battle against the mouse king. In the Forest of Snowflakes, more than a dozen dancers create a winter flurry. Between flourishes with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, troupes of divertissements give life to the movements of the suite.

And on opening night, the duo from the Boston Ballet brought originality and verve to the most storied roles in dance.

Indeed, Jensen’s turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy was ethereal — at times during her solos she looked like she was floating.

UNCSA’s production captivated my grown-up tastes with music and movement. But my daughter, after seeing her very first Nutcracker, became swept away by the fantasy and romance of the tale.

That’s the whole point of The Nutcracker: The poetry of motion aside, this is a children’s story, a fantasy conjured in the frozen steppe.

It’s about kids and the holidays, a Christmas of plenty and the comfort that comes from the retelling of a tale this time each year.