Temperatures in Atlanta were warm, but it was snowing in the Fabulous Fox Theatre as the Atlanta Ballet opened the Nutcracker season. The ambiance of the restored 1929 Fox is in itself worth the ticket; the value only increases when Christmas carols on the pipe organ and an enchanting 121-year-old ballet, complete with live orchestra, are included.
“The Nutcracker” is always a magical ballet, but the last two years have seen an expansion of the magic. This year, toymaker Drosselmeyer is played by the magician who designed many of the illusions, Master Illusionist Drew Thomas. While Drew is clearly not a dancer, he worked hard to make his performance blend with those of the rest of the cast. There was a lot of gratuitous cape swirling, but it was offset by the magical elements; the audience favorite was a handkerchief that took on a life of its own, orchestrated by the toymaker who controlled the ballet’s action.
The Atlanta Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” is beautiful, with lavish sets and opulent costumes. The live orchestra adds to the mood created by the theatre itself and the panoramic décor. In a nod to musical composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the ballet is set in Russia instead of the Germany of original author E.T.A. Hoffman’s tales. The onion domes of distant palaces and the lushly-embroidered sarafans, worn by the women in Act I, underscore the exotic flavor of the staging. The only jarring element is the word “Nutcracker,” prominently displayed among the summer blossoms and lanterns on the Act II set.
The party in Act I cleverly depicts the excitement of a large holiday event, with children underfoot as their parents attempt to have an adult celebration. In the midst of all the chaos, Drosselmeyer’s Meissen Dolls stood out. Nadia Mara and Jared Tan were technically nearly perfect in the roles, and were able to make us believe they were mechanized toys instead of flesh-and-blood artists. They also brought to the attention of the audience the darker aspects of the partygoers’ interactions, most notably pride and envy. As Marya’s dream unfolded, the audience was enchanted by the rats, performed with whimsical humor and sharp wit, and by the lovely Marya herself, masterfully danced by company artist Alessa Rogers, who convinced the audience she was a young teen. As Act I progressed, Marya proved to be a passionate, strong-willed role model for the young girls in the audience.
A weaker part of the performance was the transition to the Snow Scene. The segue took too long and was anything but magical, although the audience was enchanted by light flurries of snow, which fell, not only on the stage, but on audience members, as well. The costumes were beautiful, but the timing of the Snow Queen and King was slightly off, with big lifts just missing the accompanying cymbal crashes in a miscommunication between dancers and conductor. If we had been watching a football game, an announcer surely would have commented on the earliness of the season and the need for the team to get more playing time in order to become more cohesive.
The Act II crowd-pleasers were the athletic, tongue-in-cheek Trepak, the blinking Chinese Dragons, the Shepherdess–danced with delicate strength by Claire Stallman–and her adorable pink and black sheep, and the campy Mother Metrushka, whose tumbling children emerge from under her voluminous skirts. One of the most charming elements of “The Nutcracker” is always the liberal use of children, giving the audience a chance to see the emerging technical excellence of the area’s young students. And this is a place where the Atlanta Ballet shines. The 250 children who will perform during this year’s run are well-trained and beautifully rehearsed.
Act II also appeals to those who want to see pyrotechnics. Unfortunately, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier have had their Grand
Pas de Deux deconstructed and presented in pieces throughout Act II, and Sugar Plum had to share her adagio and coda with Marya. This is lamentable, because Rachel Van Buskirk and Christian Clark displayed impeccable classical training and amplitude. They were generous and gracious, while showing how much they enjoyed performing an updated, more interesting and exciting version of the traditional choreography. They seemed capable of the enormous stamina required of a full, non-stop Grand Pas in the original Petipa style, but instead they left the stage between movements, while several variations were performed by other dancers each time before their return. Christian Clark was a very attentive Cavalier in the classical tradition, providing power and stability to his partner through some very nice off-center supports, rapid pirouettes, and dynamic lifts. He never allowed his role as partner to overshadow his own technical prowess, evidenced by breakneck batterie and robust tours. Rachel Van Buskirk demonstrated precision and control, secure in her ability to dance beyond the technical requirements of the choreography.
The highlight of the performance was the Arabian variation, danced by Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper. The timing was exquisite, the movement was lusciously controlled and unashamedly sensual, and the lifts were breathtaking.
The audience members became participants in the ballet, shouting their approval of the dancers’ and musicians’ efforts, and leaping to their feet at the end of the performance as the lights faded on a charming tableau of the Nutcracker guarding Marya as she slept. The opportunity to spur the dancers on to greater achievements–to participate in the artistic conversation–is what makes live performance so exciting and so rewarding. If you have never seen Atlanta Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” you should immediately book your ticket. If you have seen it, but have forgotten how much you loved it, hopefully you will remember and make your holiday pilgrimage to the Fox Theatre before the opportunity slips away.
“20/20:Visionary”: Looking Back, Looking Forward
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.
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.
“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!
Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” Enchants
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.
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.
Kurtis Blow and the Hip Hop Nutcracker
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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