This year’s Nutcracker season is both an exciting and bittersweet time for Atlanta Ballet. It marks the 20th anniversary of artistic director John McFall’s version of the beloved holiday classic as well as his final Nutcracker with the company. After leading Atlanta Ballet since 1994, he will retire at the end of the 2015-2016 season.
Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, which runs from December 11-27, will be performed at the historic Fox Theatre and accompanied by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra led by principal guest conductor Gary Sheldon. The Georgia Youth Choir will sing during Act I’s Snow Scene
Atlanta Ballet’s Alessa Rogers, now in her ninth year performing as Marya (the production’s Clara/Marie equivalent) began portraying the part as a student. A couple of years later, McFall decided to change Marya into a role for a company dancer. “I think when he choreographed the updated Marya, he definitely considered his own feisty young daughters,” says Rogers, “He also took a lot of input from company dancers who were performing the role. We all bounced ideas off of one another. Atlanta Ballet has a very open and collaborative environment so we really molded the role together. But each Marya retains the right to tweak things and interpret the part in the way that makes the most sense to her.”
In McFall’s Nutcracker, Marya plays a more active role up than she does in other interpretations. “She has a lot more to do than stand around and open presents,” explains Rogers, “In the first act she has a bit of a flirtation with Drosselmeyer’s nephew. At the end of the battle scene, she takes the initiative to defeat the Rat King using a sword she steals from a rat.”
In that climatic scene, the Rat King’s costume increases his height to a towering eight feet and the Nutcracker wears a two-pound mask as he combats against him. “Dancing with the giant sword isn’t easy with a lot of people on stage,” says Miguel Montoya, who is debuting as the title character this year, “But those moments are still fun parts that make the scene more interesting and the role more challenging in a good way.”
Also making a role debut this year is Yoomi Kim, who will be dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy. “This has been my dream role since I was a little kid,” she says, “I used to watch The Nutcracker with my parents during the Christmas season and I was fascinated by the magical Sugar Plum’s kingdom. Ever since I started dancing the role, my love for Sugar Plum has grown deeper.”
In Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, the Sugar Plum Fairy dons an unconventional burgundy tutu and shares her iconic solo with Marya. “Sugar Plum is like a role model to Marya and that is illustrated through the choreography,” says Kim, “Each movement of the variation is mirrored by Marya, which makes for a very beautiful and special moment on stage between the two characters.”
The choreography for the variation of the Prince, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance partner, also has a unique twist in Atlanta Ballet’s version. “McFall grants us permission to make our own variation,” says Jacob Bush, who has been dancing the role of the Prince for six years, “You can challenge yourself. It’s fun!”
As with any production that’s presented annually, The Nutcracker offers its performers new challenges and opportunities for growth. How do dancers build upon roles they’ve revisited for many Nutcracker seasons? Bush focuses on enhancing movement quality and artistry. “I have been dancing with the same Sugar Plum Fairy, Tara Lee, for a while now,” he says, “Each year, we talk a lot about how we can finesse the movement so we are as calm as possible. I think that gives it the regal look we both want the characters to have.” For Rogers, it’s about dramatic content and recreating seasonal enchantment. “The challenge of doing any role for nearly a decade is keeping the interactions spontaneous,” she says, “Especially because Marya is a young girl, I have to remember the feeling of Christmas morning when I was a child–that effervescence, that joy and exuberance and sparkle. But Marya is such a joy-filled character and performing for those people in the audience who have never seen a ballet before–that is a magic that keeps me motivated.”
Tickets start at $25.00. Purchase here.