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Nutcracker

Atlanta Ballet’s high-tech “Nutcracker” comes home to Cobb Energy Centre

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s glorious Nutcracker music wafts through the halls of the Atlanta Ballet headquarters where, in a vast and airy dance studio the size of an airplane hangar, a major rehearsal is in progress. Most of the studio has been transformed into a full scale mock-up of The Nutcracker’s first act.

Far right, a bridge spans an imaginary river over which toy soldiers march, vigorously wielding imaginary swords. Center stage, a battle rages as children playing tiny mice attack and jump on the large rats performed by adult members of the company. The scene then shifts to a Christmas party with joyful children skipping around a glittering tree, gifts piled below. Suddenly a drama halts the merriment when a scuffle breaks out; the nutcracker, little Marie’s prized gift, has lost its head. Yet, all is supremely organized chaos.

Sharon Story has her hands full rehearsing five casts of children. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

Atlanta Ballet performs The Nutcracker December 4-29 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. After two years at the Fox Theatre, the ballet was canceled in 2020 because of the pandemic. Instead, the company arranged a drive-in viewing at Cobb Energy and on-demand access to a previously recorded version of the production.

Cobb Energy was always the intended venue for the ballet. “It has more room backstage and more up-dated technology” than the Fox, says the company’s general manager Thomas Fowlkes.

Sharon Story is the company’s secret weapon when it comes to managing and overseeing the large cast of children. She is the tall, serene and elegant former ballerina who performed with the Joffrey Ballet, Boston Ballet and Atlanta Ballet before graduating to ballet mistress.

During rehearsal she deftly maneuvers the children into their proper places and positions. Scattered along the rim of the studio, the adult dancers await their turn to spring into action when artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin signals for a scene change.

Story has been dean of the company’s Centre for Dance Education for 25 years. It has grown into one of the most prestigious ballet academies in the country. It is from this bounty of disciplined, talented youngsters that Story assembles five casts from 176 selected children to perform in the annual Nutcracker production. She oversees auditions, chooses the children for the roles and rehearses the casts.

This year, however, there were additional challenges. A September 2 New York Times article described several Nutcracker productions that have made considerable concessions and modifications in casting children to conform with Covid restrictions. New York City Ballet made the decision to eliminate children under 12 and instead substituted smaller adults. Other companies are reducing the number of children in the cast.

Story stressed that Atlanta Ballet’s adult company members have been vaccinated, and that they have cast all the children the production calls for, down to the six-year-olds. They are all masked and tested. “It’s very important,” she says. “We made that decision back in September. The chicks are the youngest, ranging in age from six to seven; they will have yellow beaks for masks. They are the most entertaining. The party children will wear skin-tone masks. They rehearse and will perform with masks that match their costumes. It is not a hardship on them. They are used to the masks but it’s a little sad not to be able to see their faces.”

Atlanta Ballet Nutcracker
Some of the children cast as chicks in the ballet get a costume fitting at Atlanta Ballet’s studios. (Photo by Brian Wallenberg)

The excitement of performing in The Nutcracker hasn’t waned, even with mask restrictions. Sophia Pham, a petite, vivacious 13-year-old, relishes her role as Fritz, Marie’s feisty brother, who breaks his sister’s beloved nutcracker. An argument ensues. Pham says, “I love the part; it gives me a chance to act and dance with the adults.”

As familiar as this scene, and the bevy of children, may be for Nutcracker fans, Atlanta Ballet’s high-tech version of the holiday classic is anything but standard fare. It leans heavily on the latest state-of-the-art technology capable of manifesting swirling celestial aurora borealis and giant floating furniture and facilitating virtual set changes.

When Nedvigin arrived in 2016 he immediately began to plan a new Nutcracker for the company. He chose Yuri Possokhov, his former colleague and San Francisco Ballet’s renowned resident choreographer, and together they envisioned a multimedia extravaganza that would illuminate the magic of E.T.A. Hoffman’s 19th century fairy tale, with all its Victorian splendor, and at the same time embellish it with 21st century high-tech wizardry.

“Nedvigin and Possokhov wanted to go back to the original Hoffman story and bring that to life,” Fowlkes says, “but they also wanted a Nutcracker for this current, hi-tech savvy generation of theatergoers.” To accomplish this, Fowlkes assembled and headed an international design team starting with Tony Award-winning video artist Finn Ross, lighting designer David Finn and scenic designer Tom Pye. This London design group, coordinated by Fowlkes, made many trips across the ocean and was extremely cooperative, he says.

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Company dancers playing mice are dwarfed by the larger-than-life furniture created by the award-winning design team. (Photo by Gene Schiavone)

Among other special effects, they came up with a sky full of twinkling stars and a digital blizzard that, coincidently, ensures whirling ballerinas won’t skid or fall — a common peril among dancing snowflakes coping with slippery confetti.

“Now my job is to keep everyone on tap,” says Fowlkes, who oversees the 50-member backstage crew to make sure this intricate, fine-tuned Nutcracker goes off without a hitch. His crew does five technical rehearsals without the cast. “This is the biggest and most complex show I have ever done,” he says. “There is no room for error.”

The same is true for the children that Story is rehearsing. She is ably supported by two children’s cast rehearsal assistants, Abi Tan-Gamino, who recently retired from Atlanta Ballet, and Serena Chu, who used to dance with the Tulsa Ballet. They perform a vital role, from teaching and rehearsing the children to shepherding them around backstage, making sure they are in the correct wings for their entrances. It can become hectic during scene changes.

In spite of the challenges, the children have the same level of excitement, the same dedication, Story says. “They are just excited to be back on stage and performing.”

Audiences are required to show proof of vaccination or a negative recent Covid test.

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 Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to Dance Magazine, Playbill, Pointe Magazine and many other publications. She was a professional ballet dancer.

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