What makes “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” worth seeing again is simply that it’s not the same production every year. The work evolves. Small changes make the sheer beauty and endless variety of classical ballet — plus the dancers’ technical skill and emotional generosity — increasingly clear. Though this eclectic troupe doesn’t have the uniform body types or technical prowess of companies like New York City Ballet or American Ballet Theatre, their warmth and unique individual qualities give this production its dynamic breadth, from a tipsy chef to a stiff-limbed Nutcracker to a wispy shepherdess. Last Saturday I saw, and now highly recommend, an “A” cast performance, one of several in rotation at the Fox Theatre.
Most know the story, of a young girl who, after a party filled with Christmas delights and sibling quarrels, saves her Nutcracker in a dream and travels to a magic land where she experiences a visual feast of music and dance. Artistic director John McFall’s version, performed annually at the Fox since it was created in 1995, has unusual depth and dimension. Its scenes and characters stretch ballet’s dynamic range, revealing more expressive possibilities within the traditional form. The structure is sound; there’s freedom to edit, vary and reshape the choreography to challenge his dancers and build on their strengths while offering fresh points of view on Tchaikovsky’s score.
Gary Sheldon conducted the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra, which is scheduled to play every show in this season’s run through December 26. April McCoy’s new jewel-toned costumes, for the Sugar Plum Fairy, Cavalier, Dewdrop Fairy and others, glistened next to Judanna Lynn’s richly textured designs. (Photos by Charlie McCullers, courtesy of Atlanta Ballet.)
Fewer children on stage this year leave more roles for company dancers and more glorious classical partnering, part of McFall’s decision to offer a more polished professional production. (This is a wise choice from both an artistic and a business standpoint, seeing that last year’s “Nutcracker” earned about 60 percent of Atlanta Ballet’s revenue.)
Gone last year was the split role of Young Marya, danced by a child, and Ballerina Marya, performed by an adult. Instead, petite company member Peng-Yu Chen, who also performed Saturday, pulled both roles together, making the story more vivid and the choreography more complex throughout, from her annoyance toward her obstreperous brother Nicholas (danced excellently by Kevin Silverstein) to her courageous fight with the Rat King (Stephen Word) to a duet with the Sugar Plum Fairy (Kristine Necessary) where Marya emulated this dancer’s strength and beauty.
This year, Marya didn’t venture into the dream through her bedroom mirror on Drosselmeyer’s invitation. Instead, she popped out of his satchel amid Nicholas’ congregation of rats. Perhaps story logic was diminished here, but there was added dimension in Tara Lee’s and Jonah Hooper’s subsequent snow pas de deux. In a snow-laden forest under a full moon, Lee, as the Snow Queen in glittering white, seemed to ride weightlessly through a series of slow-motion leaps as in a dream, partnered by Hooper, while flurries of long-limbed dancers whirled past. Hooper steadied her through multiple turns that crystallized into one glorious lift after another, a kaleidoscopic succession of sparkling configurations.
Peter Horne’s set design for Act 2, a seaside scene bordered by layers of lacy white flowers and lanterns, suggested a real Russian girl’s wintertime memory of a summer by the Black Sea. Here she might have encountered real Spanish, Asian, Arab and Russian people who could have inspired her dream of their dances. To evoke each dance’s mood, David Tatu’s lighting subtly changed the soft colors of lanterns, sea and sky.
It was satisfying to see Necessary’s and Christian Clark’s growth, from last year, as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier respectively. There was softness to the couple’s grand pas de deux, set to Tchaikovsky’s repeated descending melody — an homage, perhaps, to the composer’s sister Sasha, whose death he mourned while he struggled to compose the ballet’s score. Between dazzling promenades, turns and overhead lifts, Necessary and Clark exchanged quiet, personal glances that made their dancing more intimate and deeply real. Their costumes — Necessary in a mauve-magenta tutu and tiara accented with green, Clark in opalescent white — were ravishing. The corps of Flowers, too, were marvelously rehearsed. They lilted through a bouquet of waltz steps, turns and buoyant leaps with a roundness, radiance and generosity that were simply magical.