What would the holiday season be without the Atlanta Ballet’s annual staging of the yuletide classic The Nutcracker?

In 1959, long before any of this year’s dancers were born – and probably many of their parents – Atlantans were introduced to choreographer George Balanchine’s signature version. Robert Barnett, then Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director, did the introduction. It was the first time Balanchine allowed his piece to be done by anyone besides the New York City Ballet.

In the 51 years since, family audiences have eaten the show up like so many of the sweets that figure prominently in the story, which began as a Russian fairy tale by E.T.A. Hoffman and was later set to an iconic score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

In 1995, Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director John McFall created his own variation, describing it as “traditional yet new, familiar yet different, classic yet contemporary and, above all, magical.”

“It really is magical, something that truly spells the holiday season,” says Sharon Story, dean of the company’s Centre for Dance Education. “The show has always been a joy to people of all ages. Some people have been coming to see it for generations, first seeing it as kids and now bringing their own kids to see it. Or first seeing it with their kids and now seeing it with their grandkids. It’s a tradition.”

No small part of the magic is provided by the show’s sumptuous production design – and by the spectacular venue itself: the Fabulous Fox Theatre. “Our sets were specifically built for the Fox, which has a magical atmosphere all its own,” Story says. “The wonderful sets and costumes only enhance the beauty of the dancing and the music.”

Story grew up in Kennesaw and began her training with the Cobb Marietta Ballet. Following an illustrious career that included lengthy stints with the Joffrey Ballet in New York and the Boston Ballet (in addition to touring the world with none other than Rudolf Nureyev), she came home to Georgia. She joined Atlanta Ballet 17 seasons ago, first as a ballet mistress/dance instructor and then, in 1996, moving to the Centre.

Story’s responsibilities are many throughout the year. She oversees all aspects of the Centre’s programs and the nearly 1,000 students who participate in them – from creative movement classes (designed for 3- to 6-year-olds) and student classes (ages 7 and up) to the pre-professional and adult levels.

Story is a primary guiding force behind the annual Nutcracker – from auditions and casting through rehearsals and performances. In an ensemble that includes 21 company dancers and six apprentices, there are more than 50 roles for children (ranging from toy soldiers and nesting dolls to munchkins and mice).

Even though five casts are used during the two-week run, there still aren’t quite enough parts to go around for Centre students, a group that has grown significantly under Story’s leadership.

“The idea of using different casts is mainly an effort to give as many students as possible the opportunity to be onstage,” she says. “This is the first year we weren’t able to open up the auditions to kids from the community, because we were already turning away a lot of students from our own group.”

Each student comes with a family, of course. And just as Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker is an annual tradition for families in the audience, it’s also an annual tradition for families involved behind the scenes.

Forrest Hibbard is co-chair of Atlanta Ballet’s volunteer parents association. His daughter Lauren is dancing in her eighth Nutcracker this year. “She started out as a mouse when she was eight,” he says.

Hundreds of parents work year-round to support and promote the company through fund-raising initiatives or community outreach programs. For Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, in particular, it means filling 34 volunteer positions for each of the show’s 23 performances – no small feat (you do the math). It also can be about relatively mundane things, like coordinating transportation to and from classes or rehearsals.

“It’s a big commitment and responsibility, especially during the holidays, and not just for the kids but also for their parents,” Hibbard admits. “Lauren probably devotes more than 20 hours per week to her ballet, and that’s outside of school and her other activities. But if both of the parents work, if they have other children playing soccer or baseball, juggling it all can be hard for the rest of the family, too.”

What makes it worthwhile, he says, is knowing that it’s for a good cause. “My wife and I were [Atlanta Ballet] season ticket holders long before our daughter was born. And for her it’s been a great environment to grow up in. Some of these kids have been friends and dancing together for 10 or more years now.”

As Story puts it so simply, “Aside from being a highly physical activity, ballet is all about focus and discipline, and instilling in the dancer the importance of those key elements.”

Ask her if she misses her own heyday as a ballerina, and she doesn’t skip a beat. “To be honest, I’m very happily retired from that,” she says. “I love what I do now and it keeps me very busy.

“It’s inspiring, being able to take what I’ve learned over the years from all of my own mentors, and passing that knowledge on to the next generation to carry on.”

Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker plays the Fox Theatre Dec. 8-24, 2011.


Bert Osborne has written about Atlanta theater for nearly 20 years. A former critic with Creative Loafing and The Sunday Paper, he currently reviews theater for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.