The Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker opened this weekend. It has been advertised as having “50% more magic.” I don’t know about that, but it is a feast for the eyes and a fitting start to the holiday season. The Fabulous Fox is a visual treat unto itself; the sets are beautiful; the costumes are stunning. This version of the ballet is set in Russia, and careful attention was paid to cultural and period costumes throughout the ballet, as well as to making sure they didn’t impede the dancers or hide the choreography.
The Nutcracker has been a tradition in the U.S. since the 1960s, but its history is much older. The music was commissioned from Pyotr Tchaikovsky by iconic ballet choreographer Marius Petipa, and it was first performed at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 17, 1892. It was a flop. Although Tsar Alexander III liked it, neither the critics nor the audience did.
The ballet was first performed in the U.S. December 24, 1944, by the San Francisco Opera Ballet under the direction of William Christiansen, who also danced the Cavalier. This time, the ballet was a success. It was further developed by George Balanchine for his New York City Ballet, by whom it was presented in 1954. It quickly went viral, becoming a Christmastime must for young children and their families all over the country by the late 1960s. My personal favorite, as far as the full production goes, is the Houston Ballet version from the late 1970s.
There are a lot of positives to the Atlanta Ballet version, not least of which is the dancing. The weakest parts of many Nutcrackersare the dancing by the younger children. Sharon Story, director of the Atlanta Ballet school, and the ballet mistresses should be receiving an award: All of these children were beautifully trained and rehearsed, and technically polished. This production gives the audience a chance to scout the upcoming generation of dancers. Alessa Rogers, who danced Marya, is definitely one to watch.
There were two or three unstretched feet among the youngest cast members, but all-in-all, the excellence of their training shows.
The best dancing, of course, came from the professional company members. Some notable performances in Act I were by the magic Meissen dolls, Peng-Yu Chen and Jared Tan, who managed technical feats while still convincing the audience that they were mechanical dolls, and from The Snow Queen, Claire Stallman. The snowflakes were also lovely. In fact, they were silent, for which I gave a heartfelt prayer of thanks. At one Atlanta Ballet Nutcracker in 1986, my baby brother asked my husband, “What dance is this?” during the snow scene. “The Dance of the Clydesdales,” he responded promptly, addressing the sound of 32 pointe-shoe-shod dancers with unpointed feet. No Clydesdales took the stage this time, although the Battle Scene between the toy soldiers and the rats included some amazing cavalry, riding chargers into the fray–with their feet beautifully stretched.
There were also some fun new moments, such as the magical handkerchief of Drosselmeyer. (John Welker, by the way, had me convinced he was an old man—a spry one, but an old man, nevertheless—even though I know better!)
Dance aficionados wait for Act II and the “real” dancing. All of the Sweets danced beautifully, but there were some standouts. The Trepak, danced with amazing stamina by Heath Gill, Brandon Nguyen, and Benjamin Stone, was justifiably a crowd favorite. The Chinese Dragons were simple, but probably employed the most effective use of color, shape, and movement of any of the dances. Abigail Tan-Gamino’s Dew Drop was both lyrical and strong. A high point was the duet by the Rose Escorts, who were so well-rehearsed that their turns not only began and ended together, but even faced each wall of the stage simultaneously.
I am old and jaded and have seen and danced in a lot of Nutcrackers, but the Pas de Deux between Sugar Plum and the Cavalier made me cry at its beauty. I have not seen Rachel Van Buskirk in a strictly classical role, but she left me breathless with her fluidity, broken by impeccable balances, all presented with the smiling graciousness expected from royalty. Christian Clark managed to be the perfect Cavalier: courtly and taking exquisite care of his partner, giving her support and placing her weight just where she needed it, while still having a personality of his own—and a personality with humor, at that. I have always thought that the music for the Grand Pas de Deux was well ahead of its time, but the traditional choreography is not. John McFall’s choreography was modern without losing the classical flavor, and it fit the music much better than the original.
Usually, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier are posing charmingly on the stage during the biggest moments in the music. In this production, they are doing difficult and beautiful lifts during those big moments—and appearing to be having a great time doing them!
There were also things that disappointed me. Unlike the Royal Ballet’s version, the story didn’t hang together very well. I was left wondering whom the Sweets were dancing for, since Marya was absent during most of the second act. And was it a dream or was it real? The ponderous transitions between the scenes were shared with the audience, rather than being magically instantaneous. The Arabian duet is usually one of my favorites, but I felt this one was a showpiece for the audience; I never got the feeling I was spying on a seduction/love scene in the seraglio, as I have in some other versions. The dancers performed it very well, but I wasn’t drawn into the action. Bradley Renner, as Mother Matrushka, was fabulous, but often upstaged the tumbling children.
And then there was the orchestra. It is always a treat to have live music, but it must work. During the Snow Scene, the big moments in the music, filled with cymbal crashes, always seemed to lag behind the big moments in the dancing by about a second and a half. In ballet, the musicians need to be lead by the dancers so those moments are simultaneous. I thought the Snow King, Jonah Hooper, was becoming frustrated with the disconnect. Fortunately, intermission seemed to fix the problem, which didn’t resurface in Act II.
Finally, there was the rearranging of Act II. Marius Petipa, the original choreographer of The Nutcracker, created the template for classical ballet’s Grand Pas de Deux: the large adagio, followed by a variation for the woman, a variation for the man, and a coda. In Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, the master design was dissected, with the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo variation becoming a duet between her and Marya (nicely performed, may I say), and the other portions occurring at various times throughout the act. One of the points of the Grand Pas is the stamina required of the dancers to complete it. We didn’t get to see that, as they had plenty of rest between sections.
But, I have to say again, the dancing is excellent, there is a lot of pageantry, and The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition nobody should miss. Performances run through December 26 , so you still have time to book your seats if you haven’t yet. The audience loved it, breaking into spontaneous applause throughout the performance, and giving the dancers the coveted Standing O(vation) at the end. In fact, we wanted the cast to have another curtain call or three. But, instead, we were left wanting more, and children were still dancing in the aisles and down the steps of the theatre as the audience filed out…which is as it should be.