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.

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.