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.