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Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker: Take Two

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Back again, you ask? Well, it IS the season for The Nutcracker, as well as its 120th anniversary, surely cause for celebration. And I was so impressed with my first visit to the Atlanta Ballet’s production at the Fabulous Fox Theatre that I wanted to see it again, with a different cast (there are five, if I am counting correctly).

When the curtain went up, I was scribbling casting changes. Three main characters were performed by dancers not listed on the program for this evening’s show. That made me a little nervous, but it shouldn’t have.

If this were a football team, I would be talking about depth.

For so many companies, there are a few really good dancers, and then a lot of adequate dancers. Atlanta gave me a full cast of really good dancers on my first visit. And then they did it again tonight with a different team. And with subs.

Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker. Photograph courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Marya was danced by Xiwen Li. She was a very different Marya from the one danced by Alessa Rogers. She doesn’t have the turn-out and spot-on placement Alessa has, and she portrays a younger Marya, more naïve and less sure of herself when the party scene begins. She is charming, likeable, and believable, and her technique is strong and sure. She is a fellowship dancer here on an exchange from China, courtesy of the Confucius Institute at Kennesaw State University.

Nadia Mara stepped into the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, squired by John Welker as the Cavalier. This was a departure from the casting listed in the program. I was overwhelmed by Rachel Van Buskirk and Christian Clark in their performance December 9. Nadia didn’t have the dazzling balance Rachel demonstrated, but she had wonderful upper body carriage and beautiful arms, as well as a warmth that carried into the audience. John Welker was a perfect Cavalier (somebody is training these partners very well!). He was attentive to Sugar Plum, but took the opportunity to display lightning-fast beats and powerful, multiple tours in his variation and the coda, making Nadia look even more delicate and graceful by contrast.

Alessa Rogers danced a lovely Snow Queen, with wonderful penchee arabesques and a la seconde extensions. She and Brandon Nguyen were a very approachable Snow couple, not as encased-in-ice as some I have seen, yet technically solid. Again, the orchestra and the dancers seemed to be in different places. Time warp?

Jackie Nash and Jared Tan as the Spanish dancers gave the audience sharp technique, flash, and an utterly dynamic performance.

And then we came to the Flowers. Waltz of the Flowers is usually not my favorite part of Nutcracker, although the music is pretty, and richly orchestrated.  But tonight’s scene captivated me. Dew Drop, danced by Claire Stallman, is deceptive: it requires stamina and multiple directional changes and has a level of difficulty most audience members don’t recognize. Claire pulled it off while appearing unfazed — and with energy to spare. She should have been lavished with more  spontaneous-applause moments. The Rose Escorts were impeccable—again—another example of Atlanta Ballet’s depth. Note to audience: being a Rose Escort is like being a Prince, only it requires synchronous movement with another dancer, or sometimes with three. Heath Gill and Brandon Nguyen pulled it off. And then there was Nicole Jones. I rarely focus on individual dancers in ensemble pieces, but I kept finding my eyes repeatedly drawn to her. The last time I saw this Fellowship dancer, she was performing her own, intriguing choreography in a fountain at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. This time she was part of a group of ten Flowers, but she could almost have been dancing alone. The petite, blonde student does everything she is supposed to do to blend into the ensemble; but somehow she doesn’t…not exactly. Someone is going to grab her up, and I hope it will be here in Atlanta: I want to watch her grow as a dancer and as a choreographer.

So, if you haven’t been able to decide which Atlanta Ballet Nutcracker performance to attend, I have some advice for you: Pick one, any one. You are sure to be treated to outstanding dancers in a magical ballet.

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“20/20:Visionary”: Looking Back, Looking Forward

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Photograph by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

Last weekend (March 18-20) the Atlanta Ballet gifted the city with “20/20: Visionary,” three pieces, including a world premiere, presented at the Cobb Energy Center.

The world premiere, “Playground,” by British choreographer Douglas Lee, belied its name by being a shadowy piece danced between upright, rolling chalkboard set pieces. Prepared for a lighthearted, joyful expression of childhood, I was surprised that the work instead exposed the darker side of childhood memories. There were some light moments, such as the towering billboard inscribed with multiple lines reading, “Jackie must remember the steps” – clearly a humorous aside about Jackie Nash, one of the most capable company members and perhaps the quickest study in rehearsal. There were some easily-seen choreographic devices–a lot of theme and variation, even more pushing around of set pieces–but there were a few exceptional moments as well, including intricate, slow-motion manipulation of a dancer’s body by another dancer.

Pen-Yu Chen & Tara Lee in “Boiling Point.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

The opening work, “Boiling Point,” by Darrell Grand Moultrie, was playfully performed at breakneck speed. Dancers are often told to “make it look easy,” and the company took that concept to heart. Highlighted against the men in black costumes, the women wore bits of metallic fabric, providing splashes of intense color and exposing powerful bodies with long muscles. The piece began with the stage space open almost to its fullest, and the dancers running across like a rushing river. They rolled, twisted, turned, and slid like water itself. The choreography juxtaposed synchronicity with counterpoint, traditional with innovation. There was a gargouillade, rarely seen even in classical ballets. The lines of the bodies were critical to the piece, and often layers deep. The flow was almost nonstop, with only an occasional flick of a wrist or toss of a head to provide momentary stasis. The standout was Christian Clark, who sometimes nearly managed to integrate himself into the group but then something distinctive and powerful in his dancing drew the eye to him again.

“Red Clay” from “Home in 7.” Photo by C McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

“Home in 7,” a work by Amy Siewert, closed the concert. A portrait of Atlanta, the ballet was a rich tapestry woven from music, spoken word, and movement. Performed in 7 segments to a libretto written and performed by Marc Bamuthi Joseph and an intriguing, haunting string score composed and performed by Daniel Bernard Roumain, the dance, too, was a poem, shimmering like summer moonlight on the Chattahoochee. John Welker opened the ballet with tiny explosions of movement “Secrets.” Perhaps the most enchanting segment was “Home of the Braves:” 5 men using baseball imagery, holding their formation as they slid precisely between pitches and catches. “Red Clay” evoked August nights, intolerance, and redemption—Atlanta history, a story familiar to many. I first saw this ballet in 2011, and it has grown in depth as the dancers have matured technically and emotionally. Atlanta loves its ballet company, and never more than when it showcases its home city.

John McFall is ending his tenure with the company at the end of this season. For newcomers to Atlanta Ballet offerings, this will have been a dynamic performance. For long-time supporters, it will have been an opportunity to reflect on his legacy. There are a couple more opportunities to see the company under his watch, and then he will pass the torch to Gennadi Nedvigin, the company’s fourth artistic director. Stay tuned!

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Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Enchants

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© Laura Christian

This year, the Atlanta Ballet marks the 20th anniversary of Artistic Director John McFall’s “The Nutcracker.” Attendance is a familiar holiday season tradition for many area families, who line up to see the changes and improvements that occur each year. While the story of the young girl who receives a Nutcracker-who-comes-to-life is familiar to thousands of ballet fans, there are many versions. The Atlanta Ballet’s production is richly designed and elegantly danced.

Originally a failure in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892, “The Nutcracker” is now a holiday staple in the United States. Nobody dances it any better than the Atlanta Ballet, and nobody loves it more than a matinee house full of children! Whether they are watching their peers on-stage; hearing the Georgia Youth Choir singing in the Snow scene from the boxes; absorbing the live music from the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra in the pit; laughing with joy at Mother Matrushka’s children, emerging from under her skirts; screaming with glee at the capering Chinese Dragon; or reaching far above their heads to capture a snowflake, the children are enraptured for the two-plus hours the ballet is on the stage—and the adults are mesmerized right beside them.

Mother Matrushka in Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker.” Photograph by C. McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.

There are some elements of this version of the ballet that are not my favorites, but the dancers didn’t make that list. Casting is impeccable, and, for me, part of the excitement of revisiting the old standby is seeing the dancers mature, improve, and demonstrate new abilities. The other part is watching the children captivated by the allure of the Fabulous Fox Theatre, the live music, the dancers, and the dancing—and being enthralled myself.

My list of this year’s positives goes like this:

John McFall has to contend with decreasing audience attention spans as we move further into the age of technology, and he tweaks Act I each year to make it more exciting. It is fast-paced. You may want to see the ballet more than once to catch everything! The foreshadowing during Act I was clear and well-conceived, and had the audience eagerly anticipating the return of the dancers to the stage after intermission.

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Kurtis Blow and the Hip Hop Nutcracker

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A holiday mash-up for the entire family, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a contemporary work set to Tchaikovsky’s timeless music, embarks on an international tour on the strength of last December’s sold-out performances of the world premiere at New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) and United Palace of Cultural Arts (UPCA) in New York City. The Hip Hop Nutcracker will make a stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre Saturday, Nov. 28 at 2 p.m.

 

The Hip Hop Nutcracker is directed and choreographed by Jennifer Weber, artistic director of the all-female hip-hop crew Decadancetheatre in Brooklyn. It is adapted to today’s New York by Mike Fitelson, executive director of UPCA – the work’s original producer – and includes hip-hop interludes remixed and reimagined by DJ Boo and violinist Filip Pogády.

For its stop at Atlanta’s Fox Theatre on Saturday, Nov. 28, The Hip Hop Nutcracker features special guest MC Kurtis Blow, one of the founders and creators of recorded rap music.

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