The sugar-plum nostalgia kicked in before the curtain even parted Friday night at Robinson Center Music Hall for the annual Christmas treat of The Nutcracker.
Forget the snow and ice — it doesn’t feel like the Christmas season, at least in central Arkansas, until the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra plays the familiar opening strains of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s score and dancers take the stage for Ballet Arkansas’ version of the classic tale.
With those notes the audience is transported with Clara to the wondrous land of magic. Along the way we lament her broken Nutcracker doll, feel her fright during the climactic battle scene and sit rapt while enjoying the enchanted Kingdom of Sweets.
Character dancing both sweet and comical brought the festive party scene in Act 1 to life. The children were especially wonderful in this performance, including Mary Claire Cogbill and Erik Kim as Clara and her mischievous brother, Fritz. The mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer has never been more magical, thanks to Stephen K. Stone’s performance.
Over the years, the battle between the Nutcracker prince and the mouse king has grown to include a queen, dozens of minions and even a cheese throne. The audience has certainly relished the whimsical additions, which this year included creepy long claws for the foot-soldier rats. The costumes and props bring richness to every part of the production.
Ballet Arkansas captivates old and young alike by constantly improving on its presentation of this classic.
The terrific Leslie Dodge must be mentioned for her exquisite turn as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Guest artist Beau Pearson excelled as her Cavalier, bringing the grand pas de deux to a new level.
Other Ballet Arkansas members, many of them pulling double duty in multiple roles, also swept us away. The Ballet Arkansas Youth Division dancers continue to impress with their technical ability and artistic maturity.
Ballet Arkansas has grown under the direction of Michael Bearden and Lauren Strother, as this performance demonstrates. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra, led here by assistant conductor Geoffrey Robson, delivered another superb performance. We shouldn’t be surprised at the talent and growth of these groups.
Two more performances of The Nutcracker are scheduled at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available at tickets.arkansassymphony.org.