Atlanta Ballet dances “The Nutcracker” Dec. 6-29 at the Fox Theatre.
Atlanta Ballet’s The Nutcracker is back, determined to transport you to Old Russia, where toy soldiers come to life, snow fairies dance in a glittering, dreamlike world and there’s always a new surprise.
This season’s twist: Professional illusionist Drew Thomas plays the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, who brings the toys to life and sets the story in motion.
Thomas joined the ballet last season to dream up magic tricks and make them part of the story. He hinted then that his role might grow and, indeed, it has. This year he’s brought a new bag of tricks and is stepping onstage as Drosselmeyer for the first two weeks of the run.
“I’m going to storm the stage this year as only an illusionist can,” Thomas says. “We’re going to take every little nuance and every subtlety and turn it into a magical moment.”
Last year, the Nutcracker figure, which appeared as a wooden toy, was transformed into a 6-foot-tall human being. This year, Thomas says, the Nutcracker will materialize out of thin air.
Last year, a handkerchief flew through the air, burst through a window, zoomed above the audience and came to rest in Drosselmeyer’s hand. Look for even more shenanigans this year — with the handkerchief and and any other object.
“We’ve been able to let our imaginations run wild,” says Atlanta Ballet artistic director John McFall, clearly pleased to have Thomas on board.
He first cast Thomas as Drosselmeyer in an Ohio Nutcracker more than 20 years ago. McFall was looking for a magician to fill the role, which doesn’t require dancing, only the ability to move smoothly onstage.
An associate saw Thomas do a Michael Jackson move during a magic show and recommended him. Deal done. Long-term relationship formed.
Thomas now designs magic shows for the NBA’s Orlando Magic, Six Flags, SeaWorld, Universal Studios and Royal Caribbean Cruises. He was once a finalist on NBC’s “America’s Got Talent.”
He’s not the only one experiencing the magic of the season. Nearly 250 children in four casts will rotate through the performances. Some have trained in ballet for years, others are just beginning.
Hannae Dillon, 10, is a snow fairy in Cast D. She’s danced in The Nutcracker twice before and has studied ballet since she was 2. Eight-year-old Morgan Gao, on the other hand, is new to ballet and comes from the Alliance Theatre’s A Christmas Carol, where he played Tiny Tim last season. Look for him among the mice in Cast B.
The Nutcracker ballet itself, born in Russia in 1892, has been performed in Atlanta for 54 years. The original tale is decidedly deeper and darker than the lush ballet.
E.T.A. Hoffmann, a lawyer, composer and German Romantic writer, penned the story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” in 1816. It was decidedly gothic in a time when gothic novels and fairly tales were popular. Hoffman was known for fiction that had a deep undercurrent of menace, a dreamlike quality, and grotesque and inexplicable elements. Sigmund Freud, for one, was very interested in his work.
Alexandre Dumas (The Three Musketeers) translated it from German to French and altered the story. Then choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, and the composer Tchaikovsky, brought it to the Moscow stage.
The ballet jumped to the United States in 1944 and, in the 1950s, George Balanchine staged it in New York City. Atlanta’s 1959 performance was the first time Balanchine allowed anyone outside the New York City Ballet to do his adaptation.
In 1995, McFall re-created the production and each year seeks to reinvigorate it.
Its lavish staging and ethereal music, set in the midst of a dark winter-night’s dream, do hint at the underside of human nature. Perhaps that’s why it’s entirely fitting for a magician to join this world and do his curious work.
Stell Simonton is an Atlanta freelance writer whose work is found in the Christian Science Monitor, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta Parent, among others. She is a member of the Artist Conference Network.