On Saturday afternoon, Durham Performing Arts Center was mostly full as it hosted a matinee of the Carolina Ballet's annual staging of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Adults and children sighed, laughed and applauded as the gingerbread soldiers and the Mouse King and Clara went through their paces. It was a splendid show, a holiday favorite all around, but it's also a show that must be kept fresh, especially when a high-level ballet company is doing it.
The DPAC was the second stop in the company's holiday rounds, but the two opening weekends in Chapel Hill and Durham didn't even put the troupe halfway through its most grueling month. There are 14 performances to come in the next two weekends in Raleigh, including six this weekend.
The crowd at the first Durham show, mostly adults and their adorable offspring, seemed impressed—astounded even—by what they witnessed. What the kids may not have realized, though, is that in a crowded Nutcracker marketplace, the Carolina Ballet is trying to find new ways to distinguish its production from the others. In order to put more of those kiddie asses in seats, this version includes elaborately staged illusions.
Considering that there are myriad Nutcracker productions popping off in and around the Triangle (go to the performances section of NutcrackerBallet.net, tap on North Carolina and see for yourself), you can hardly blame the Carolina Ballet for trying to build some new additions to this old house.
According to Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert "Ricky" Weiss, there have been bits of magic in past Nutcracker shows, but not the "full-scale, Las Vegas-style illusions" that are in this production.
"I had always been a magic buff as a child," says Weiss. "I've seen a lot of magic shows. And since a lot of children and families come to The Nutcracker, I thought, wouldn't it be wonderful to combine magic with ballet?"
These illusions come courtesy of Rick Thomas, the Long Beach-born magician and illusionist who's been playing the Tropicana in Vegas for 15 years. Thomas says the troupe sought him out for the way he fuses dancing in his magic routines.
"In the world of magic, I'm known as probably the most dancing magician out there," says Thomas.
Thomas spent six months working on magical set pieces, working with a video recording of the show and seeing where illusions would fit. For this production, he takes the character of resident toymaker Herr Drosselmeyer (played by company ballet master Marin Boieru) and tacks on some magician skills. In Act 1, Drosselmeyer shows up at a kid-stuffed Christmas Eve party and pulls off such feats as making an angel levitate in order to light the top of a Christmas tree and having toy soldiers and sugarplum fairies show up out of nowhere and materialize in boxes.
Ballet purists might worry that such effects amount to pandering to audiences susceptible to awe-inspiring but cheap thrills, but Thomas assures us that the ballet's classical tone is still intact.
"The ballet needs to do everything that they can, just like any other form of entertainment, to bring the audience in to see them," he says.
"Our key, though, is we've been really pushing to try to keep The Nutcracker in its entirety without ruining it with the magic. It's nice to make things appear or vanish onstage, but it's still all about Nutcracker."
It's true that, even with all the magic going on, it's still all about the moves. While Act 1 is covered with wall-to-wall magical routines, Act 2 is virtually magic-free. This is where the dancers and a number of kid extras get to shine with a series of graceful, choreographed numbers. (Yes, "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" is up in there too!)
Raleigh resident Todd Brantley certainly enjoyed the hell out of it. He took his wife, Amy, and their 3-year-old twin girls to the show.
"I'm not a ballet person," says Brantley, who says he's seen a Nutcracker presentation in the past. "But it's really nice. I think, clearly, they've done a lot, they spent a lot and they worked a lot on the background. The set design is magnificent, and the dancers are incredible."
What about the magic? Did the twins dig it?
"They did a lot of clapping," says Amy Brantley. "So I think they liked it."
Durham mother Karen Judd also gave some love to the choreography and production design. While her kids were unsettled by the mouse-headed dancers who clogged the stage during the Act 1 battle sequence, the magic proved to be very satisfying.
"I enjoyed it," says Judd, who has a son who'll play one of the mice in his school production of The Nutcracker. "I like the dancing, and the color is very colorful and entertaining—very artistic ... [The magic] adds a little laughter element, but you don't laugh out loud. But it's kinda funny and amazing."
In the end, Weiss and the company want audiences to enjoy the distinctive additions they've brought to this treasured, traditional work.
"It was time for a change," he says. "We did it for 10 years one way. And now we have a new decade coming, and we're hoping that we're gonna do it a different way."