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Las Vegas 'magic' comes to 'The Nutcracker'

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 11:06 AM EST, Fri December 16, 2011
Carolina Ballet dancer Dameon Nagel rehearses the role of Drosselmeyer for the company's production of
Carolina Ballet dancer Dameon Nagel rehearses the role of Drosselmeyer for the company's production of "The Nutcracker."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carolina Ballet introduces levitating ballerinas, disappearing dancers into show
  • The company hired Las Vegas headliner Rick Thomas to coordinate illusions
  • Ballet companies are constantly looking for ways to draw bigger crowds
  • Toronto Mayor Rob Ford appeared in National Ballet Canada's Nutcracker

(CNN) -- "The Nutcracker" ballet, as most North Americans know it, is about magic. A wooden toy transforms into a prince, mice and toy soldiers engage in battle, a little girl journeys to a sugar-coated paradise where she is treated to a series of decadent dances.

But does it need more magic, Carolina Ballet director Robert Weiss wondered, prompting a search for ways to make his company's version of the classic George Balanchine staging of the ballet more "magical."

"I've always felt the magic in 'Nutcracker' was rather bland, and that if we could get a real first-class magician to come in and help us figure out how we could enhance the show, it would really take the whole ballet and kick it up a notch," said Weiss.

"The whole thing is about magic, it's Clara's dream, so the more magical we make it, the better," he said, watching a dancer attached to cables float across the stage of Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall during final rehearsals last month.

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It was no small feat, but after months of planning and rehearsing with Las Vegas illusionist Rick Thomas, the show opened earlier this month featuring a levitating ballerina, flying Drosselmeyers and a few other surprises. The company also invested in glittering new sets for the first time since its inaugural "Nutcracker" production in 2001.

In a career spanning nearly five decades as a dancer, teacher and company director, Weiss has played all the male Nutcracker roles except Drosselmeyer. Therefore, he was sensitive to concerns that introducing special effects would turn the show into Las Vegas-style fare.

Those concerns were put to rest as soon as rehearsals began, the dancers said.

"They're not flashy tricks or people doing gymnastics. They're illusions that add to the story at just the right moments," principal dancer Melissa Podcasy said. "The story is intact, the choreography is the same, it just adds that element of visual wonder."

As the cash cow that allows many ballet companies to pursue projects with less mainstream appeal the rest of the year, "Nutcracker" productions are constantly being refreshed and marketed in different ways to bring in larger crowds.

Carolina Ballet's use of illusions might represent this season's most substantial modification of an existing production, but each company has its own means of reaching bigger audiences.

National Ballet Canada continued its tradition of guest walk-ons during its Saturday performance with Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who dressed as a Russian Petrouchka doll and shot a cannon into the audience to begin the battle scene in Act I.

The New York City Ballet's Nutcracker was broadcast Tuesday in movie theaters nationwide. Morning talk show personality Kelly Ripa hosted the live broadcast, which included backstage interviews and a visit to the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet and home to the young ballet students who perform in the production. A nationally televised broadcast followed on Wednesday evening on PBS' "Live from Lincoln Center."

Other companies organize extra events and activities to enhance their "Nutcracker" experience. Attendees of the Pacific Northwest Ballet's production, a collaboration between choreographer Kent Stowell and illustrator Maurice Sendak, can also enjoy a family brunch or a "date night," take their pictures with characters from the show or meet the Seafair Pirates.

Not everyone in the arts world regards "The Nutcracker" as a tradition worth embracing. In a 2009 Washington Post column, Sarah Kaufman wrote that "to those of us who despair of its pervading tweeness and wish ballet had something better to do at this time of year than endlessly reminisce like a sweet, whiskery auntie, it bears some bad news, too. 'The Nutcracker's' stranglehold is all but squeezing ballet dry."

Regardless, companies in small cities like Raleigh rely on their adaptations of E.T.A. Hoffmann's book "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" to introduce ballet to audiences that wouldn't attend otherwise. Amid the country's economic slump, "Nutcracker" ticket sales have gone down each year, making each investment all the more crucial, Weiss said.

"Ballet's still an esoteric form to many, and for many, they don't go to see Carolina Ballet, they go to see 'Nutcracker,' " he said.

"Because we don't have money, every decision we make is that much harder. We have to take a hard look at what we gain," he said. "Do we spend an extra $5,000 to $10,000 on lighting to get it at its highest level, or should we get a new snow machine because it's not putting out as much as I'd like?"

Weiss brought the idea of adding special effects to his board and convinced them that a little bit of magic was what they needed to get ticket sales back to pre-recession levels.

He enlisted the aid of Thomas, a Las Vegas headliner known for incorporating tigers, birds and dancing into his long-running act.

Weiss sent a video of the ballet with thoughts on where illusions could possibly fit in. From the start, he was firm that Thomas' stunts could not alter the choreography or the music.

They ended up with a dancing doll who floats a few feet above a table and dancers who suddenly pop out of empty boxes.

The key was to create illusions that were convincing but easy for someone who's not a "true magician" to pull off, he said. From there, the dancers had to learn to interact with the stunts and engage the audience.

"I'm overwhelmed to see how great the show turned out and how far the dancers have come," he said. "People think you have to go to Las Vegas to see great talent but it's right here in North Carolina."

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