Neglia’s dancers sparkle in ‘Nutcracker’, Mary Kunz Goldman, Buffalo News

What a night for dance it was Saturday in downtown Buffalo. The Neglia Ballet Artists, joined by the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, were dancing “The Nutcracker” in Shea’s Performing Arts Center. And the mirror ball was whirling over the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center, which played host to the World’s Largest Disco.

It’s hard to imagine the disco, for all its glitz, having half of the sparkle of “The Nutcracker.” What fun this weekend’s performance is. It is everything “Nutcracker” fans, and we are legion, could wish for.

This “Nutcracker” has a lot in common with last year’s, not that there is anything wrong with that. Marie, the little girl who gets the nutcracker as a present, is again danced by Yuha Tomita, an exchange student from Buffalo’s sister city in Japan. Tomita, who also starred in the Neglia’s recent “Baba Yaga,” is confident and appealing, with her wide eyes, big smile and sure steps. She also dances as one of the Snow Flakes. Grown-up Marie is danced with flair and energy by the same dancer who had the part last year, Silvina Vaccarelli.

Vincent O’Neill reprises his role as the mesmerizing magician Herr Drosselmeyer. He owns the part, with his wild eyes and crisp gestures. We also have the same pair as last year dancing the smoldering Arabian dance, Marty Beth Hansohn and Shane Ohmer.

And Sergio Neglia, as the Cavalier, is the soul of the production. He has just the right panache and macho edge. The moment when he first appears, as a prince in white lying on the stage, is magical. And no ballet is complete without Neglia getting to lift the prima ballerina over his head – whether tragically, as in “Spartacus,” or romantically, as in the final pas de deux of “The Nutcracker.” It is thrilling. Saturday, as he suavely and effortlessly hefted the statuesque Vaccarelli, the crowd begins to applaud as if by osmosis.

“People tell me, ‘Sergio, when we see you dance, we do not sleep at night,’ ” Neglia said happily once in a Buffalo News interview. That is the kind of attitude you need.

He and his wife, Heidi Halt – who co-directs this ballet with him – clearly pass that attitude on to their dancers. You can spot several very promising up-and-comers. A few prominent performers were especially strong. Jace Coronado showed dash and flash as the Spanish dancer. His sunny partner was Marie Keil. Ilya Burov, first seen as the Soldier Doll, doubled as the soloist in the Trepak dance and got in some good leaps.

A special brava goes to Hansohn, the Arabian dancer, who triumphed over a potentially disastrous wardrobe malfunction. The dance demands a belly-dancer outfit, and her filmy pants began slipping. She managed smoothly and extremely quickly to fasten them, somehow, from behind, mid-spin. She did it so deftly that few were the wiser. That is a pro.

A close call like that left you with a new admiration for all the polish that goes into a production like this. Just like on the stage of the Bolshoi, there is so much that can go wrong, and that everything moves so smoothly is, in itself, a reason to marvel.

There is a lot of life and a lot of conviction, not to mention a lot to watch, onstage. The initial party scene brims with action and humor. Paul Mockovak was great fun last year as the grandfather, reliving his military days as he watches the boys dancing with swords. He is equally funny this year. The grandmother, played by Suzanne Evans (who steals the show later as Mother Ginger) is also good for a lot of laughs, lovingly reining in her husband and flirting with Herr Drosselmeyer. The large mechanical dolls (Morgan Brown and Ilya Burov) move adeptly through their staccato motions. I only wish the harlequin doll, winding down, had frozen in an undignified position. That is usually a funny sight – the doll leaning over with her rear to the audience – but we didn’t get it this time.

The rats and mice are a kick and it’s always neat how, even as you are laughing at their antics, there is something creepy about them. Good for Neglia, the choreographer, for getting that across. It reminds you that “The Nutcracker” was dreamed up by a writer of fantasy and horror, E.T.A. Hoffmann.

The sets have the same beauty we have come to expect. The massive Christmas tree, growing to a surreal height, is especially arresting. The Snow Flakes and Flowers have the traditional sweetness. So does the Mother Ginger scene, with the cute cupcakes and hilariously mustachioed little chefs brandishing wooden spoons.

The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, in the pit, reveled in Tchaikovsky’s harmonies and jingly textures. I love how you can see the harp player, Suzanne Thomas, by the edge of the stage. It’s such a beautiful instrument to watch, and added to the Christmas ambiance that filled the golden theater.

The BPO contributed one new star to the proceedings. Stefan Sanders, the recently appointed associate conductor, is at the helm. At the final curtain, when everyone was bowing, he emerged and, beaming with his hands clasped over his head, ratcheted up the excitement yet another notch. He has personality! As does this entire production.