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Atlanta Ballet "The Nutcracker"

Review: Atlanta Ballet’s world-class “The Nutcracker” makes inspired return

Books are not often featured in The Nutcracker — Balanchine’s version of the holiday ballet, for example, seems more fixated on sweets. But in Yuri Possokhov’s version, created for Atlanta Ballet, a leather-bound book etched with gold plays a key role as a gateway into imaginary worlds. The young protagonist Marie is a shy bookworm, and Drosselmeier relates to her through a book, which grows with Marie’s outsize imagination.

The Nutcracker is perennially Atlanta Ballet’s most popular production and this three-year-old version is likely the company’s most elaborate. It made a stunning entrée last Saturday evening, marking the company’s return to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre after nearly two years. It also marked the production’s move from the Fox Theatre, where it debuted in 2018, to the newer venue where the company has presented most of its repertory since 2008.

In a curtain speech, artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin and the company’s new executive director Tom West welcomed audiences to the return to the theater. The gesture signified not only The Nutcracker’s venue change, but also a five-year transition since Nedvigin became artistic director in 2016. To date, Nedvigin’s vision seems one of big ambitions, international ties and a Kennedy Center triumph, but a still-undefined identity. For those who are curious about where this is all going, Possokhov’s Nutcracker may offer clues.

Atlanta Ballet, Nutcracker
Kaitlin Matree Roemer, as the young Marie, is transported to magical worlds by Drosselmeier (Jacob Bush). (Photo by Kim Kenney)

First, some background. In 1995, Atlanta Ballet’s then-artistic director John McFall introduced a new Nutcracker production and moved the company’s annual holiday show from the Atlanta Civic Center to the Fox Theatre. The challenge then (on a $640,000 budget) was to integrate the theater’s Moorish décor with production design while adapting the movie house’s shallower stage for dance.

Goals were different when Possokhov’s 2018 production debuted at the Fox. With a budget of $3.7 million — nearly $6 million if you include costs for maintenance and upkeep — Possokhov and his world-class production team aimed to showcase the imaginative possibilities they could achieve through today’s technology. In this case, the production itself is the attraction, and it needs a theater with the technology, space and acoustics to support it.

And it is remarkable. Possokhov’s choreography draws out the lyricism of Tchaikovsky’s music while merging classical aesthetics with a contemporary drive and momentum as visual elements evoke E.T.A. Hoffmann’s era with crisp luminosity. The production is so layered with imagery and so packed with visual details, it’s impossible to take it all in at once: Audiences can return year after year and make new discoveries leading to different interpretations.

It’s a fitting concept for the encompassing worlds of the character Drosselmeier, performed Saturday evening by Jacob Bush. It’s a world of magical mechanisms where a mysterious old book immerses its reader in worlds within worlds that shift from toy-sized to enormous, and where these sudden changes of scale are at once wondrous and terrifying. As orchestrator of this world, Drosselmeier both disrupts and reinstates order — everything unfolds in his world and on his terms.

For the first act’s party scene, set designer Tom Pye creates an intricate setting with a storybook feel — a warmly lit home under a moon and clouds that look like cardboard cutouts, the sky a magnificent map of the constellations that are echoed on the lining of Drosselmeier’s cape.

Drosselmeier controls everything — he is gift-bearer, the life of the party, puppeteer, magician, hat-and-cane showman, orchestrator of dreams and of nightmares rolled into one. In his world, the tiny and life-size exist in the same space. He unveils a small puppet theater. As children gather round, a silk curtain magically turns the home’s interior into a life-size puppet theater where dancing Dolls and uniformed Officer Dolls show how size and scale are relative and fluid in a child’s imagination.

In the story, Drosselmeier gives Marie a nutcracker, which she loves. Her jealous brother Fritz (Riley Sipe) breaks it. Drosselmeier fixes the nutcracker, and in this version, comforts Marie by showing her a book – a gateway, perhaps to imaginary worlds. Kaitlin Matree Roemer is strikingly fresh as the child Marie. She picks up the storytelling in Tchaikovsky’s music, from its light quickenings to the sense of wonder in its harmonies. In short, she’s a natural.

Atlanta Ballet Nutcracker
Marie (Roemer) admires her new nutcracker toy as Drosselmeier (Bush) looks on at the holiday party in Act I. (Photo by Kim Kenney)

In the battle scene, size and scale shift so rapidly that they upend Marie’s world. Airi Igarashi appears as Marie on a giant armchair, its oblique proportions hinting at the surreal: Its size makes Igarashi look as small as a toy doll. Life-sized toys descend from a three-story cabinet onto the battleground.

Scale again shifts in the ensuing snow scene. Partnered by Guilherme Maciel as the prince, Igarashi spins effortlessly center stage while a map of the stars rotates behind them, as if the couple is at the center of Drosselmeier’s universe.

Possokhov’s choreography is never static — the spiral seems the key to fluidity and a metaphor for transformation. It’s apparent as Igarashi wraps her body around Maciel’s, then shifts to the front of his body, outstretching her limbs as in flight, then forms a shallow spiral around his turning vertical axis, all while ensemble dancers sweep around them as one body.

Amid this activity, Marie halts, covers her ears as if reliving the trauma of her encounter with Drosselmeier and the battle scene. As a harp trills and woodwinds hum, Maciel holds her off the floor while she runs in slow motion, as if in a nightmare more than a dream. He flips her, inverted, over his shoulders in a dizzying series of revolving lifts amid swirls of dancers in white organza.

All is resolved in Act II, which goes deeper into Drosselmeier’s world. White-clad flowers dance, and he blows them away like drifting mist. The book, now enormous, opens to reveal different variations — a Spanish dance filled with bold character flourishes, a Chinese fan dance.

In the Arabian dance, Georgia Dalton rises from a snake charmer’s basket and engages with three men in a sinuous quartet. It’s unclear whether the men worship her or control her, until they flip her upside down and stuff her into the basket. Newcomer Spencer Wetherington brought a youthful vigor to the Russian dance. Dancers strutting like chickens add a humorous twist on a French country dance, its barnyard scene perhaps recalling the ballet La Fille Mal Gardée.

Atlanta Ballet Nutcracker
Atlanta Ballet dancers perform “Waltz of the Flowers” (seen here in 2018) against a brilliant backdrop of flowers and birds. (Photo by Gene Schiavone)

Possokhov has replaced the matriarch Mother Ginger, who appears in many Nutcrackers, with Drosselmeier, who appears atop a 3D metal version of his galactic map, celestial harlequins hanging from its crossbars.

The “Waltz of the Flowers” is perhaps Possokhov’s most inspired divertissement. With a gently rippling curtain of emerald green aurora borealis behind them, the book opens to vivid botanical prints of poppies and passion flowers. Lines of white-clad dancers lilt through waltz steps, upper bodies blossoming as they interlace with three couples — the men as roses, the women as dragonflies — in vivid tones of violet, purple and magenta. Jessica He and Anderson Souza partnered together Saturday with a palpable sense of joy.

During Marie’s and the Nutcracker Prince’s grand pas de deux, time feels suspended, as it is in the joy of love. Their movement stabilizes in classicism, its verticality and clarity of line projecting order and harmony. Even when Maciel flips Igarashi over his head, she gracefully regains balance. Courtliness and classicism triumph. Order is restored.

Perhaps that’s the message we seek in these pandemic days where the future remains uncertain. Can we escape reality through imaginary worlds like this and perhaps find some semblance of equilibrium in turbulent times? It’s a good question. This Nutcracker seems to offer one clear answer, however, about Atlanta Ballet’s identity —  classicism is here to stay.

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Cynthia Bond Perry has covered dance for ArtsATL since the website was founded in 2009. One of the most respected dance writers in the Southeast, she also contributes to Dance Magazine, Dance International and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has an M.F.A. in narrative media writing from the University of Georgia.

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