AFTER MORE THAN 500 PERFORMANCES AND 23 SEASONS, ATLANTA BALLET DANCES JOHN McFALL’S ‘NUTCRACKER’ FOR THE LAST TIME.
AS THE BYRDS SANG a half-century ago, “to everything there is a season, turn, turn, turn.”
Even if your Nutcracker ballet is as pretty as a Christmas card. Even if it has a splendid balance of humor, beauty and elegance. And enough clever and dynamic choreography and rosy-cheeked children. Even then, change is inevitable.
This year is the 23rd and final presentation of just such a Nutcracker: the successful and imaginative rendering that John McFall, as artistic director, created decades ago for Atlanta Ballet. McFall retired in 2016, and his Nutcracker follows suit when this season’s final curtain falls Dec. 28.
Before McFall, the company mostly staged George Balanchine’s traditional version of the holiday ballet set to Peter Tchaikovsky’s music. McFall’s successor, the Bolshi-trained Gennadi Nedvigin, will debut a new Nutcracker in 2018.
The story of a nutcracker doll that comes to life and turns into a prince, and a young girl’s fantasy adventure, has always lent itself to creative interpretation. McFall calls Tchaikovsky’s lush and sprightly 1892 score “film music — way ahead of its time.”
In McFall’s Nutcracker, the audience is transported to a Christmas party at the Petrov home in St. Petersburg, Russia, circa 1850. Costumes by Judanna Lynn, and scenery by Peter Horne and Michael Hagen, have been praised for evoking that time and place as has McFall’s sense of whimsy and wonder.
McFall takes his sweet time with that party scene, inviting us to sit back and bask in the merriment. Before too long, though, he serves up a comedic and athletically rigorous “battle of the rats.”
From a breathtaking scene with a gentle snowfall and a dozen Snowflakes weaving in and out of one another, to some classical pas de deux, there’s also intricate choreography to please serious dance fans.
For what will this Nutcracker be remembered? Its overall beauty and enchantment, many magical moments and a sharp focus on storytelling. That’s the word from dancers Nadia Mara and Jacob Bush, who have each danced lead roles over the years.
There are always several casts performing the Nut, so depending on which one you see, Mara this year may dance the Snow Queen, Sugar Plum Fairy or Dew Drop Fairy. Bush will do the Snow King (his favorite, “because the pas de deux is amazing, and I just get swept away”), the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Cavalier or Drosselmeyer the toymaker.
It’s the enigmatic Drosselmeyer who takes the girl Marya on her eye-popping journey to a land of snow and crystal, the Sugar Candy Kingdom and an exotic ball showcasing cultural dances.
McFall suggests that his Nutcracker has a “women’s lib” vibe. His Marya “liberates herself and discovers her world is filled with possibility. She is courageous, defines herself and shatters the glass ceiling.”
Deepening the storytelling may be McFall’s top strength, say Mara and Bush.
“I’ve seen lots of Nutcrackers and some have seemed a bit two-dimensional,” Bush says. “John has always been very good at using every character, including every kid onstage, and they don’t jump up and down. Every one of them is given specific steps and is encouraged to be part of the story.”
Says Mara: “John spent so much time on the details. That’s how to get everyone caught up in a story.”
Some 200 youngsters from the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education perform annually in this Nutcracker.
“Audiences return year after year if the production is theatrical, vibrant and inspiring,” McFall says. “There has to be a rhythm and pace that invigorates and stimulates.”
To keep the Nutcracker story moving, McFall rearranged some musical sequences. American audiences, he says, “are easily bored, so less is better. I omitted or edited what might be described as 19th-century storytelling. My version has a Las Vegas-style of theatrical lifts and a bit of circus. More gusto and a sense of enthusiasm.”
McFall interrupted his retirement to prepare the company for this final Nutcracker of his. Nedvigin worked alongside him the past two seasons and called it a “wonderful experience.”
“John McFall’s version of Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker has touched the lives of so many children and families throughout the past two decades,” Nedvigin says.
It’s too soon for Nedvigin to say much about next year’s new Nutcracker, but he does say he’s gathered a “top-notch” creative team. It includes renowned choreographer Yuri Possokhov, formerly of the Bolshoi and San Francisco ballets. His Cinderella for the Bolshoi (2006) and Don Quixote for the Joffrey Ballet (2011) are among his many triumphs. Atlanta Ballet danced his Firebird last April.
What Nedvigin will say is that the next Nut will be “extraordinary” and “take audiences on a journey that is truly larger than life.”
For now, we have a twilight moment for this long-loved Nutcracker.
“It is truly dear to my heart,” Mara says. “I love doing the Sugar Plum Fairy. It doesn’t matter if I’ve done it a hundred times. I still get goose bumps. And I love that feeling. We don’t get to have happy goose bumps all the time.”