Atlanta Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” plays the Fox Theatre on Dec. 7-26.
Magic comes naturally to The Nutcracker. The classic Tchaikovsky ballet, performed for more than half a century by Atlanta Ballet, features growing Christmas trees, armed rodents and sugar plum fairies. For the company’s 53rd production, Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall has decided to ramp up the stage sorcery with contributions from an old friend, illusionist Drew Thomas.
The two first collaborated more than 20 years ago, when McFall was artistic director at Ballet Met in Columbus, Ohio, and Thomas was a self-taught teenage magician fresh out of high school. Thomas had a charisma that belied his youth, McFall recalls. “He was so fascinating that I asked him to perform in the role of Drosselmeyer — not as a dancer, but because he had this innate ability to move.”
Thomas did several illusions in that production, including one involving a live duck that vanished, only to reappear under the grandmother’s skirts. One evening his feathered co-star ignored its usual cues. “The duck and I had a little nonverbal conversation, and it took off for the orchestra pit,” Thomas says, laughing. “There was an enormous laugh that you normally never hear at the ballet. At the end of the night, when the conductor took his bow, he came out with the duck under his arm.”
Thomas played the enigmatic toymaker for Ballet Met for five seasons and in subsequent years became a professional touring illusionist, reaching the finals on one season of “America’s Got Talent.” McFall reached out to him earlier this year.
Thomas agreed, and prepared by revisiting The Nutcracker’s source material. “I listened to the music, watched the DVD and found moments that seemed right for magic. In this case, there isn’t a magic catalog for me to draw on, so I looked at the ballet through the eyes of a magician.”
As usual, Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker will feature 21 company members dancing alongside more than 250 schoolchildren from the metro area, as well as contributions from the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra and the Georgia Youth Choir.
Thomas finds that illusions suit perfectly the tone and energy of the ballet’s Christmas Eve gathering. “There’s so many people engaged in the festive atmosphere at the party scene. There are gifts being shared, electricity in the air. It’s very easy for me to find opportunities to include illusions, without seeming like it’s suddenly a circus or a goofy magic show. We want it to have a sublime introduction to the ballet.”
McFall says Thomas, who’s based in Orlando, designed about half a dozen illusions for the production. The prologue in Drosselmeyer’s workshop features an unusual handkerchief, but otherwise, most of the illusions appear in the party scene.
“There’s a very traditional part of the ballet in which the dolls are introduced, when Drosselmeyer shows off his creations at the party,” Thomas says. “Back when John and I first worked together, we saw an opportunity for the dolls to magically appear.” Thomas is particularly excited to revisit the same ideas with the benefit of nearly two decades of professional experience. “I thought, ‘Oh boy, do I have a way of doing a sequel to what I did 18 years ago!’ ”
Adding stage magic to an intricate ballet brings more challenges to an already huge production, McFall acknowledges. “We have four casts with four Drosselmeyers, so we have to provide each with the accouterments required. You have to do the mechanical things without losing sight of the choreography and all the other qualities of the production.”
Thomas will not do the illusions personally this year, but don’t be surprised if he’s Drosselmeyer in a future Atlanta Ballet Nutcracker.
“There is a potential for me to join the Atlanta Ballet onstage, and if so, the gloves will come off,” he says. If so, expect him to have some surprises up his sleeve – figuratively, if not literally.
Atlanta film and theater critic Curt Holman has won awards for his critical writing from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the Society of Professional Journalists, and in 2005 was a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in theater and musical theater.