Visions of Sugarplums

Carolina Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ is a tradition for dancers and audience

Lara O’Brien dances the role of the Sugarplum Fairy in 2013. This year O’Brien is dancing her 16th year of “Nutcracker” performances with the Carolina Ballet. “For so many people ‘The Nutcracker’ is a holiday tradition. It becomes a staple that’s part of what the holidays are about for them, and the magic that it brings,” she says.

Before we begin shopping for presents, cooking the holiday ham, or decorating the Christmas tree, ballet companies around the world are rehearsing for their annual “Nutcracker” performances.

To see “The Nutcracker”

“The Nutcracker” will be performed on Dec. 2-3 at UNC’s Memorial Hall, Chapel Hill; Dec. 9-10 at the Durham Performing Arts Center; and Dec. 15-24 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh.

For ticket information, see carolinaballet.com.

“The Nutcracker” is a magical tale that can inspire even the youngest imagination to run wild. It’s the story of a young girl, Clara, who receives a nutcracker doll for Christmas from her godfather. The doll transforms into a prince overnight and takes Clara on a journey to the Land of Sweets, where she meets a cast of characters, including the elegant Sugarplum Fairy.

This year marks Carolina Ballet’s 20th anniversary season as a company, and the 17th year of artistic director Robert Weiss’ rendition of “Nutcracker.”

In 2001, Weiss choreographed the entire show to Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” score. He’s kept much of the original choreography, but its costumes, sets and magic have been updated over the years.

In 2011, Weiss reimagined the company’s “Nutcracker” production and brought in Las Vegas illusionist Rick Thomas to make his dream become a reality.

In Carolina Ballet’s version of the classic story, Clara’s godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, makes his grand entrance in a cloud of smoke, party scene children disappear and reappear, and an angel even lights up the growing Christmas tree.

Many area families see the “The Nutcracker” as part of their holiday traditions. The classic show, and watching the performances of its young “party guests,” can serve as children’s introduction to the world of ballet.

Many area families see the “The Nutcracker” as part of their holiday traditions. The classic show, and watching the performances of its young “party guests,” can serve as children’s introduction to the world of ballet. Photo by Armes Photography

“To be able to incorporate full-scale illusions into the first act was a big upgrade for our production, and really sets our production apart from many others across the country,” said Carolina Ballet principal dancer Lara O’Brien.

O’Brien is dancing her 16th year of “Nutcracker” performances this year. When she began her career with Carolina Ballet as an apprentice in 2001, she danced in the company’s first production of “The Nutcracker” as a snowflake, flower, party scene mother and Spanish hot chocolate.

O’Brien has since danced every female role in the entire production, with the exception of Marzipan. Her favorite roles to perform are Arabian coffee and the Sugarplum Fairy.

“There’s just something really wonderful about dancing that role,” O’Brien said on the role of Sugarplum Fairy. “She’s a magical character. Dancing the role is a milestone for any ballerina and it is also one of the most well-known roles in classical ballet.”

Family tradition

For many, seeing “The Nutcracker” with family and friends is part of their Christmas tradition.

“Even if they’ve come to see it for 15 years, they still get so much out of it each year that they come,” O’ Brien said.

The company feels the same way.

Lara O’Brien and Carolina Ballet’s co-artistic director Zalman Raffael rehearse at the company’s Raleigh studio. A part of Carolina Ballet since 2005, Raffael has performed in “The Nutcracker” since he was 8 years old. “There’s all these little things we do in order to prepare for the season, and I think for me, the music and the story sets the tone for the holidays,” he says.

Lara O’Brien and Carolina Ballet’s co-artistic director Zalman Raffael rehearse at the company’s Raleigh studio. A part of Carolina Ballet since 2005, Raffael has performed in “The Nutcracker” since he was 8 years old. “There’s all these little things we do in order to prepare for the season, and I think for me, the music and the story sets the tone for the holidays,” he says. Photo by Jonathan Fredin

Carolina Ballet co-artistic director, Zalman Raffael, says “The Nutcracker” is an essential part of the season.

A part of Carolina Ballet since 2005, as a dancer and choreographer, Raffael has performed in “The Nutcracker” since he was 8 years old.

“It’s a part of my life,” he said. “There’s all these little things we do in order to prepare for the season, and I think for me, the music and the story sets the tone for the holidays.

“It’s an opportunity to get the families together and to go experience some form of entertainment that elevates the spirit,” Raffael added.

When O’Brien is not in rehearsal, performing onstage or spending time with her husband or 8-month-old son, she’s preparing the next generation of dancers at her Tutu School locations in Cary and Raleigh.

O’Brien opened Tutu School Cary in August to teach children the classic ballet stories she loves, and some of their choreography. She also teaches her students a few French words, so they can learn the meaning behind their moves.

“It’s a special way for me to be able to pass on what I love and know about the world of ballet to very young children, and make it joyful and whimsical for them,” she said.

For some little ones, “Nutcracker” is their introduction to seeing ballet performed onstage.

They may have learned the moves in class or danced around their houses, but have not seen the lights, makeup and costumes that make live ballet performances so exciting. Carolina Ballet’s “Nutcracker” provides an opportunity.

“For so many people ‘The Nutcracker’ is a holiday tradition,” O’Brien said. “It becomes a staple that’s part of what the holidays are about for them, and the magic that it brings.”

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