Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011 | 6:31 p.m.
When the Carolina Ballet saw ticket sales falling for the century-old holiday classic “The Nutcracker,” it came up with the audacious notion of ramping up the performance’s magic scenes by introducing real magic.
So the ballet looked to Las Vegas for help, and the end result is a “Nutcracker” like no other.
The company turned to veteran Strip magician Rick Thomas with a request probably never before heard in a ballet producer’s meeting: Please create seven major illusions for us.
Thomas did. Among them: An angel levitates to put a star on a 10-foot-tall Christmas tree, and lead character Drosselmeyer, who plays the role of a magician, appears to flatten his nephew before putting him in a bag, only to reopen the bag and reveal the nephew in fine shape.
The result: The skeptical cast and crew are applauding the new look, and ticket sales are far ahead of last year’s.
The partnership came after Robert Weiss, artistic director and CEO of the Carolina Ballet, thought that infusing the holiday production, hefty on magic in its first act, with the real thing would sell tickets. Ticket sales had been declining over the decade, and the ballet under the threat of losing more audience members to the Radio City Rockettes, who were scheduled to perform in that area for the first time.
Weiss first turned to a magician in Raleigh, N.C., where the ballet is based, but was underwhelmed and wanted something more impressive. So he reached out to Rick Thomas, who during his 12 years in Las Vegas has made tigers and motorcycles disappear at the Stardust, Tropicana, Sahara and Planet Hollywood.
In February, Thomas started creating the illusions designed around E.T.A. Hoffman’s storyline, and the ballet sent relevant performers and crew members to Las Vegas to practice their illusions.
Weiss was more than satisfied, saying the use of real magic “had never been done in world of ballet.”
For his part, Thomas says, “The illusions we built fit the theme of ‘The Nutcracker’ perfectly.”
Indeed, and the evidence is in the filled seats. Ballet spokesman Bruce Loving says sales have increased 30 percent compared with the end of last year’s productions — and there are still performances left.
So novel is this edition of “The Nutcracker” that national news outlets have reported the story.
Thomas says he wants to present the concept to Nevada Ballet Theatre using different illusions. This year Nevada Ballet used a local celebrity appearance in its production of “The Nutcracker” to drum up publicity: “Peep Show” star Holly Madison appeared as the Godmother in the ballet’s opening party scene.
So how did Rick Thomas connect with the Carolina Ballet?
Weiss, who dabbled in magic in his youth, contacted Thomas because of his ballroom dance background. He didn’t perform in the production there, but did a celebrity guest appearance in two shows, handing the Nutcracker toy to one of the dancers and exiting the stage.
“It’s been a great show,” Loving says. “Mr. Weiss’ vision was to take this to an entirely new level. If we’re going to do magic, let’s do magic.”
Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.