The rats are an invention of artistic director John McFall. Photo: Charlie McCullers

“Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” runs Dec. 11-27 at the Fox Theatre.


SNOWFLAKES AND SOLDIERS and rats — oh, my.

Once again, for the 56th time around, Atlanta Ballet is going nuts.

Preparations for Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker begin months in advance. Hundreds of sparkly costume pieces for more than 130 characters are hauled from storage in summer. It then takes about 2,000 hours to ready them for performance.

Artistic director John McFall in rehearsal for 2009's "Nutcracker." Photo: Vino Wong
Artistic director John McFall in rehearsal for 2009’s “Nutcracker.” Photo: Vino Wong

This season marks the 20th anniversary of artistic director John McFall’s elaborate storybook version of the holiday classic. Before his arrival, the company staged George Balanchine’s traditional version about a girl whose nutcracker doll comes to life, becomes a prince and whisks her away to a magical dreamland.

To embrace the rich colors, themes, textures and mysteries of Russian folklore — as reflected in Russian composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score — McFall set his production in 1850 St. Petersburg.

The girl at the story’s center is often played by a young ballet student, but McFall made his character a more mature girl named Marya and, for the past six seasons, she’s been danced by an Atlanta Ballet company member.

Tchaikovsky’s music seems to inspire choreographers. Around the world, you’ll find Nutcrackers with everything from bonbons to giraffes. McFall added evil rats. For a while, the show had a pink pig on inline skates, a wink to Atlanta’s “Ride the Pink Pig” holiday tradition.

Because the production is so large and involved, it takes a team to rehearse it — and a village of others to oversee its many demands.

McFall, who has announced that he’ll retire at the end of this season, relies to a certain extent on Rosemary Miles, Dale Shields and Sarah Hillmer. The three retired dancers are Atlanta Ballet’s ballet mistresses. Their role is to teach, direct and rehearse the company’s dancers. Miles has done this the longest, for 19 years, so she’s as familiar with McFall’s Nutcracker as anyone.


The daughter of an English brigadier general, Miles danced with the Royal Ballet and the National Ballet of Canada, among others. She was a soloist with American companies including the National Ballet of Washington and Houston Ballet.

Shields is a former principal with Indianapolis Ballet Theatre. Hilmer, an Atlanta native, performed classic roles with Atlanta Ballet and served as a ballet mistress to contemporary dance great Twyla Tharp.

Miles graciously eked time out from a booked-solid schedule to speak with us about this gargantuan undertaking. Some highlights:

Question: Looking back on your own career, is there a role that’s a highlight? Perhaps a fond Nutcracker memory? 

Answer: I did Carabosse [the wicked fairy godmother] and also Bluebird in Sleeping Beauty. Like most dancers, I’ve done a lot of Nutcrackers — five different productions and many roles. One highlight was dancing the Snow Pas de Deux as the Snow Queen for Houston Ballet. The snow scene is always wonderful, the music so glorious.

Q: How do you help prepare for this Nutcracker every year? 

A: As we rehearse and teach, we spend a lot of time with the dancers, so we help identify their individual strengths and weaknesses. It’s our role to nurture and encourage them, and to make sure the dancer realizes that what they are being asked to do is something they can do.

Q: For example?

A: We had a young gentleman cast as the Sugar Plum Cavalier. He felt a bit insecure about it, but we encouraged him and coached him, and because we were very patient, he turned out to be a very gallant cavalier.

The Sugar Plum Fairy the the Cavalier. Photo: Charlie McCullers
The Sugar Plum Fairy the the Cavalier. Photo: Charlie McCullers

Q: Year to year, what’s the best thing about tackling yet another Nutcracker

A: What I enjoy is that each year I get to see how much the dancers have improved. We’re with them all of the time, and something they were having a little trouble with last year, they are now getting up and doing beautifully. I find it very exciting to see the artistic growth among the company members.

Q: What distinguishes this Nutcracker from other productions?

A: First of all, John McFall’s party scene has become the most lively and entertaining. That scene is very long and can be a bit slow, but John really keeps this one moving. He tinkers and tinkers with the smallest details to keep it fresh and interesting. He is always thinking about entertaining the children in the audience. I think his Sugar Plum Pas de Deux is probably the most difficult I’ve ever seen. Technically it is very challenging for the dancers.

Q:  You once told an Atlanta Ballet company member to think of dancing as “speaking with your feet.” What does that mean?

A: Your feet must speak. They can’t be garbled because there is no articulation, no beauty to it. It’s probably like a pianist — you are meant to hear each and every note, so you can’t just run through them. Everything has to be enunciated and punctuated so that it is totally correct.

By the numbers: For all the vital stats on Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker, go HERE.


About Julie Bookman

Julie Bookman has written about the arts, entertainment and literature as a freelance journalist and, coast to coast, on the staffs of three daily newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She has interviewed such legends as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Liberace, Mary Martin and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

View all posts by Julie Bookman