I’d never seen Tchaikovsky’s most popular ballet in Charleston before.

Even so, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Saturday evening’s second outing of the Charleston Ballet Theatre’s new production of The Nutcracker at the Gaillard. I was expecting the usual lightweight, kiddie-oriented affair that you get in communities across America at this time of year.

But it turns out that I seriously underestimated the CBT’s ability to breathe fresh life into an old warhorse and make a grand show of it.

Nobody was surprised when CBT Board President Charles Patrick and choreographer Jill Eathorne Bahr mounted the stage beforehand, hats in hand.

Like the Charleston Symphony and other local performing arts entities, the CBT faces potential financial doom in the wake of our continuing global economic meltdown.

But after Patrick spelled out the likely curtailment of coming spring performances if they can’t raise $180,000 by the New Year, Bahr still promised a glittering Nutcracker — the likes of which we’ve never seen before around here. And her company proceeded to deliver just that.

For starters, the opening Christmas party scenario was shifted from 19th-century Russia to our own home turf: a historic East Bay Street home. The brother of the young heroine Maria (the rascal who breaks his sister’s toy nutcracker) was even cast as a churlish Citadel cadet.

And from this local launching pad, the ballet’s later dream-sequences unfolded pretty much as usual. The wounded Nutcracker duly came to life, leading a victorious midnight battle against the minions of the evil Mouse King. Maria was then free to pursue her fairy-tale journeys through lands of snow, sweets, and flowers.

The dancing was predominantly classical in execution, with a few more modern episodes — as in the sensuous Arabian dance. There’s no room here to cover the multitude of main characters, involving all of the company’s members (many of them in multiple roles). Suffice it to say that they all performed splendidly: both in solo roles and en masse.

Even the Gaillard’s spacious stage seemed hardly big enough to contain the “cast of hundreds” called for. The company’s entire roster was kept busy, including apprentices and trainees. Then there was the small army of cute, capable, and well-rehearsed kids from the CBT’s three local dance schools.

And, as the moments of “ooh-aah” delight piled up thick and fast, the only downer was the persistent pall of depression hanging over the CBT’s dire prospects. Somehow, we must keep these fabulous dancers in business.

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