When choreographer Yuri Possokhov started to set his acclaimed Nutcracker on Atlanta Ballet dancers in May 2018, he chose Erica Alvarado for the coveted role of Marie. His innovative version of the ballet eliminates the Sugar Plum Fairy, her Cavalier and the Snow Queen, and gives Marie and the Nutcracker Prince the two major pas de deux and a stronger story line. Alvarado was excited to learn and rehearse the part, but she never performed it. She got injured before the premiere and had to take a year off.
Now, three years and a pandemic later, she hopes she’ll finally get to dance the role (she won’t know until casting is announced later this year). “Maybe this is the season,” she says. A four-week run of the holiday classic opens Atlanta Ballet’s 2021–22 season December 4 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. It will be the Possokhov Nutcracker’s debut at the center, after two record-breaking seasons at the Fox Theatre and a well-received run at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Atlanta Ballet hasn’t performed at the Cobb Energy Centre since February 2020, when the COVID-19 lockdown cut short its spring program. The dancers will return to the company studios for rehearsals in late August, and Alvarado says they’re eager and inspired to get back to normal. “We want to come back strong and ready to go,” she says.
In addition to The Nutcracker the company will perform a new production of Giselle (originally scheduled for May 2020) and encores of Possokhov’s Firebird and Claudia Schreier’s Pleiades Dances. A live orchestra will accompany The Nutcracker and Firebird. Artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin has commissioned new works from company dancers Anderson Souza and Sergio Masero. Darian Kane will expand her quirky Dr. Rainbow’s Infinity Mirror into a complete ballet. The dancers’ classical technique will be on display in the 19th-century classic Paquita. Atlanta Ballet 2 will perform an hourlong Snow White.
Not surprisingly, there are no new works by visiting choreographers — social distancing, travel restrictions and the uncertainty of the COVID reopening made that impossible this year — but having the company perform live again in their home theater is reason enough to celebrate. And it’s worth noting that Kane, Masero and Souza, all promising dance makers, may never have had the chance to choreograph in a non-COVID year.
When COVID closed the company’s studios, Alvarado did her ballet barre at home, holding on to a chair or the kitchen counter to maintain her technique. In September, the dancers returned to the studio in pods of 10 to take class and rehearse the new ballets choreographed by company members. Even so, without the usual nonstop rehearsals of new and familiar works, Alvarado says she was dancing as little as three hours a day. A full day during a normal season begins at 9:30 a.m. and ends at 6:15 p.m.
The rest has been beneficial in some ways, she says, but it will be a shock to get back to that schedule. “That will be the most challenging thing for our bodies and our brains,” she says, “learning new choreography, keeping our bodies healthy and strong in a nine-hour day.” She will likely perform Pleiades Dances again and is hoping to be cast in Giselle’s demanding peasant pas de deux, which she was rehearsing when the lockdown went into effect.
Ballet is a short career, and for a dancer to lose a year or more can be devastating, but Alvarado says she believes she’ll come back stronger and wiser. “Our normal seasons are super demanding,” she says. “Your body tires out quickly.” The lockdown has taught her patience and gave her time to fine-tune her technique.
In addition to Pleiades Dances last season, she performed only in La Forme du Vent. As a result, her body held up well. No injuries. No feelings of exhaustion. “We often push, push, push when we learn new choreography, and we easily forget to pace ourselves,” she says. “I’ve had time this year to be patient with myself. Ballet is a mind game too. You have to be strong mentally.”
Alvarado expects dancers to continue to go through COVID protocols when entering the studio each day, but nothing has been decided. She hopes that by December, as she stands in the wings ready to step onto The Nutcracker stage, masks will be history, and she’ll be able to smile for the audience, a stronger, wiser and more mature dancer than before.