The Christmas season carries a childlike theme in its core.
It is the one time of year that our society collectively reminisces on the delights that childhood can hold, especially when toys, storybooks and magic factor into the equation. It’s hard to listen to even ten minutes of holiday tunes without hearing mention of the childlike wonder associated with the season. So it’s no surprise that a story about a child’s dream of fairy tales has served as a cornerstone of Atlanta’s holiday celebrations for the last sixty years. For many around the city, it’s just not Christmas until the Nutcracker defeats the Mouse King. And for more than twenty years, the battleground has been none other than here, Atlanta’s beloved Fox Theatre.
Atlanta Ballet originally performed The Nutcracker in the Civic Center, until the ’70s and ’80s when it switched between there and the Fox Theatre. In 1995, the company adopted the Fox as The Nutcracker’s long-term home for multiple reasons, one of which being its unique architecture. Even with empty seats and a bare stage, the theatre has a way of telling its own story, and, because of this, it has not only served as a performance venue, but a panoramic backdrop of the enchanting world that is The Nutcracker. It has provided an atmosphere beyond the set and has given audiences the opportunity to be completely immersed in the mystical tale.
“When John McFall became artistic director in 1994, one of the first things he did was begin the creative process to make a new Nutcracker for the city of Atlanta,” shares Tricia Ekholm, Chief Marketing Officer for Atlanta Ballet. “Because he knew we were going to be at the Fox, he really played up the Russian, Moorish feel of the story to fit the ambiance of the Fox Theatre. In 1995, we opened the McFall version, and we’ve been at the Fox Theatre ever since. A lot of the decision had to do with the aesthetics of the Fox over the Civic Center as a venue better suited for the experience of The Nutcracker experience,” Ekholm says.
At the time of its move, Atlanta Ballet already had a rich history of presenting The Nutcracker, having performed the New York City Ballet’s adaptation since 1959.
Thanks to Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director Emeritus Robert Barnett and his wife, Virginia Barnett, Atlanta Ballet was the first ballet company to be able to perform the Balanchine version of The Nutcracker outside of New York City Ballet. The two danced together at New York City Ballet under George Balanchine, and after being invited by Atlanta Ballet founder Dorothy Alexander to join as associate artistic directors and principal dancers, Balanchine gave them permission to stage any ballets of his that they could remember. Little did Balanchine know that Bobby and Virginia stood in the wings to learn the choreography of every variation, so they came to Atlanta and staged his version of The Nutcracker.
Three of the four artistic directors who have led the company throughout Atlanta Ballet’s 90-year history have brought or created a special version of The Nutcracker to the stage. Just last year, the third iteration made its highly anticipated debut.
“When Gennadi Nedvigin joined Atlanta Ballet as artistic director in 2016, he knew it was time to create a new production for the next generation of Nutcracker-goers,” Ekholm explains. “Over its 25-year run, wear and tear had taken its toll on the scenery and costumes, and it was time for a refreshed, modernized production that could sustain the times and continue to be relevant for the duration of its life span. Gennadi hired internationally acclaimed choreographer Yuri Possokhov to create this new version for Atlanta. The new production uses state-of-the-art technology that is making its way into the worlds of theatre and dance. Advanced lighting techniques and video projections are used to enhance every element – from choreography to costumes to set pieces.”
Possokhov’s version is set in Germany, hearkening back to the spirit of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.
“Yuri tried to pull out more of the original elements of the story as he developed his vision of The Nutcracker and was able to craft a full-sensory experience unlike anyone has ever done,” Ekholm shares.
In this version, Marie falls asleep after her family’s holiday party and finds herself in a magical dream world where she watches her dolls come to life and everything around her grows in size. An average chair and a toy cabinet become three stories high right before her eyes. In Act II, the pages of an enormous storybook take Marie and her Nutcracker Prince on a journey to fantastical places where they meet characters from different countries around the world.
Part of the magic of this one-of-a-kind production rests in the visionary talents of the all-star creative team assembled by Possokhov and Nedvigin. All of them have won and been nominated for esteemed awards. The projection designer, Finn Ross, has won a Tony Award, and is well known for his Broadway designs.
“We are proud to have been able to bring such a gifted group of innovative masterminds together to create a magical reimagining of this classic holiday tale,” said Atlanta Ballet Artistic Director Gennadi Nedvigin. “The combination of their specialties exquisitely enhance the ballet and allows audiences to escape from reality and join us in this enchanting, new world that is The Nutcracker.”
Not only has The Nutcracker facilitated arts patronage in children, but its inclusion of child performers has given many students the opportunity to dance with a professional company on an unforgettable stage.
“There is a long, long history of Atlanta Ballet performing The Nutcracker in the city,” says Ekholm. “And for all those versions in all those years, we’ve always had children in the cast. So we have years of children in Atlanta who have grown up and had their first on stage experience as a part of The Nutcracker.
“You think about all the ways that The Nutcracker connects to the community, whether it’s the people watching it and sitting in the seats, the students who have performed it for years, or our professional company dancers who work so very hard to bring The Nutcracker to life. It has many, many far-reaching fingers. Presenting The Nutcracker at the Fox has been a really special experience for so many people and such a part of the history of the city.”
As a venue that has connected the Atlanta community ever since its founding, the Fox has been a fitting home for The Nutcracker.