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Get a glimpse of Carolina Ballet's new Nutcracker!

Carolina Ballet's Nutcracker takes magic to the next level thanks to top-rated Las Vegas magician Rick Thomas.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

Magic has always been an element of the classic ballet Nutcracker, which begins at a party featuring Herr Drosselmeyer, who entertains the children with toys and tricks.

This year, the Carolina Ballet's production takes that magic to the next level after enlisting top-rated Las Vegas magician Rick Thomas to create new illusions for the party scene in the ballet's first act. After all, it's been years since Nutcracker was first staged.

"I think we should update the magic, don't you think?" Thomas said.

As I wrote earlier, the story and the choreography are the same. The period costumes remain Russian circa the 1890s. And the new sets are traditional (and gorgeous). You can now see a twinkling night sky above a domed ceiling during the party scene.

I had a chance to sit in on a dress rehearsal Thursday night as the company prepares to perform its first of 20 shows at Memorial Auditorium in Chapel Hill on Saturday.

Nearly all of the magic takes place during the party scene where Clara eventually receives the Nutcracker from Herr Drosselmeyer, her godfather.

To entertain the kids, Drosselmeyer, who now arrives at the party by emerging from a smoke-filled clock, brings out a series of tricks. You'll see people appear out of empty boxes (my favorite was the dancer who comes out of a large music box) and a levitating angel. Each night, a series of mostly local celebrities will appear from a box to bring the Nutcracker on stage.

The illusions have been worked into the musical score. To accommodate them, in some cases, the music just repeats a bit until the trick is complete.

Nutcracker has always been a favorite for families with its classic Christmas story. Carolina Ballet's version also has a huge appeal for kids because so many are on stage. There are 50 who play various roles, including Clara. I was amazed watching their professionalism and talent at the dress rehearsal last night.

The illusions just add to the fun for children, including those who might not be drawn to ballet in the first place. They aren't really spooky or scary. In fact, they happen so quickly and are included so seamlessly in the show that they just seem a natural fit. (Full disclosure: WRAL-TV is the underwriting sponsor of the new magic).

Thomas, who was named Amateur United States Ballroom Dancing Champion as a teen with his sister, said he jumped at the opportunity when the ballet called to see if he was interested in creating the illusions. The father of five also works and trains with Bengal tigers and will open a show at Las Vegas' Tropicana next week.

"We're not stretching it. We're not pushing it," he said of including magic in the Nutcracker.

"We hope for those people who love the ballet, they're going to love the Nutcracker," he said. "For those new to the ballet, the magic will bring them here and they'll gain the appreciation."

Hear more from Thomas and see a few scenes from Thursday's rehearsal, including some magic, in the video. Check out these behind the scenes photos too.
Nutcracker opens Saturday at UNC Memorial Auditorium in Chapel Hill. It then moves to the Durham Performing Arts Center and Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium. Click here for details. And go to WRAL's The 25 Days of Savings for a Nutcracker ticket discount.
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