On a cold and sunny afternoon recently, an Atlanta Ballet employee was seen walking out of the company’s studios on Marietta Boulevard carrying a three-foot-tall painted nutcracker prop.
At this time of year, you’d think the nutcracker would be coming into the building, not going out. Isn’t it a must-have for “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” at the Fox Theatre, which starts its annual run Friday night?
Not when Artistic Director John McFall is in a creative mood. For the first time since his production of the Christmas classic premiered in 1995, he’s replacing the prop nutcracker with a living nutcracker, played by a young boy from the Atlanta Ballet school. Eliminating the familiar prop might seem like sacrilege to families for whom “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” is as integral to the holidays as decorating the Christmas tree. But McFall has a trick up his sleeve this year that he believes will more than make up for it: illusionist Drew Thomas.
Thomas is best known as a finalist on the hit TV series “America’s Got Talent,” and his illusions go way beyond pulling a rabbit (or a nutcracker) out of a hat. At least six of his original illusions will spice up Act I’s party scene, a part of the ballet that McFall calls “often dull and uninteresting.”
Pull up a video on Thomas’ website and you’ll see illusions involving welding tools, packing crates and a Harley-Davidson or two. This is big, loud, take-no-prisoners magic, the polar opposite of snowflakes and sugar plums. But Thomas also knows “The Nutcracker” firsthand and is sensitive to its traditions.
Illusionist Drew Thomas (right) in rehearsals with dancer John Welker.
More than 20 years ago, he created illusions for the BalletMet production in Columbus, Ohio, and performed the role of Drosselmeyer, the eccentric and mysterious toymaker who invokes the magic in Act I and whose gift of a nutcracker to the young Marya sets the story in motion. That ballet was choreographed by none other than McFall, then BalletMet’s artistic director.
At the time, Thomas was a teenager working as a magician in a Columbus bar. He was also taking modern jazz classes at BalletMet. When another magician dropped out of the production, McFall offered Thomas the part. He danced the role and produced the illusions for five seasons.
“Even as a teenager, Drew had extraordinary theatricality,” McFall says before rushing into afternoon rehearsals. “He was very imaginative, very good at his craft, and always so thoughtful about the storytelling. We reconnected this summer, and he has gone a considerable distance [in his work] since then. Some of the illusions for this production were entirely his idea.”
McFall and Thomas clearly have a fertile partnership and great respect for each other’s creativity. “Working with John is a pleasure,” says Thomas by phone from his home in Orlando. “He looks beyond the norm and was very receptive to my ideas. We work well together as a pair — I often finish his sentences. This kind of collaboration wouldn’t happen with just anyone, that’s certain.”
McFall has entirely reimagined Act I but is hesitant to give away too much — he wants the new dances and the illusions to be a surprise. He alludes to flying handkerchiefs, dolls that magically appear from thin air, and a dramatic transformation of the boy Nutcracker into the grown Nutcracker. Integrating the illusions into the storyline was of paramount importance to both Thomas and McFall.
“For magic to work in ‘The Nutcracker,’ it can’t conflict with its surroundings,” says Thomas. “Sublime is the key. It can’t be this grotesque thing just to create an illusion. It’s less about me trying to force tricks into the ballet and more about finding the magic that already exists in the story.”
Unlike many illusionists who hire specialists to create their sets, Thomas designs and engineers them himself and is even nicknamed “the Magic Architect.” Atlanta Ballet’s production department is developing and implementing his designs.
Drosselmeyer is being performed this year by a rotating cast of four dancers, all of whom, six weeks before the first show, were struggling to master the finesse required to produce seamless, “how’d he do that?” illusions. Ballet dancers are highly trained athletes with a refined sense of space, time and musical phrasing. They are accustomed to performing expressive movements designed to be clearly seen from the top balcony. The language of magic, however, requires complex, precise dexterity that is meant to be invisible: an entirely different skill set. It also requires precise timing. Jonah Hooper, one of the Drosselmeyers, explains that he has a window of between three and seven seconds to make each illusion work.
There was talk of Thomas’ performing Drosselmeyer this year, but McFall is allocating the company’s resources to purchase Thomas’ intellectual property and the construction of the set pieces. Besides, with credits from Universal Studios, Six Flags and Sea World, Thomas probably commands a hefty fee these days. He has a soft spot for “The Nutcracker,” however, and hopes someday to perform the role of Drosselmeyer again, in Atlanta.
McFall is a practical man who will no doubt make the best artistic and economic decision for the company. One of his goals, after all, is to sell tickets. “The Nutcracker” accounts for 60 percent of Atlanta Ballet’s annual income from ticket sales. He is also acutely aware of the competition: local Christmas productions with pop elements that threaten to make a ballet set in 19th-century Russia seem quaint and old-fashioned.
McFall adds new elements to his “Nutcracker” every year, but he says he always stays true to his original mission for the ballet: to offer family entertainment and give young dancers at his Atlanta Centre for Dance Education an opportunity to perform on stage.
“Frankly,” he says, ”that’s where you learn to dance. I emphasize that because this component has a huge influence on our production. Bringing [young student dancers] on stage is pretty fundamental. In fact, it’s a pretty key element in the process of self-discovery for any individual in the arts, whatever the genre.”
It clearly was a path of self-discovery for Thomas. “Working with John at BalletMet was eye-opening,” he recalls. “The showmanship and presentation required to become a performer on a large stage like that, it was a turning point in my career.”
And the nutcracker prop that left the building? It was flown by military jet to bring holiday cheer to the Georgia Air National Guard troops serving in Afghanistan. That’s a whole other kind of magic.
Gillian Anne Renault writes about dance. She was formerly dance critic for The Los Angeles Daily News and has also covered dance for The Herald Examiner, Ballet News, California Magazine, KUSC-FM and NPR affiliate KCRW-FM, among others. In 1982 she received a National Endowment for the Arts scholarship to the Arts Journalism Institute of Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival. Born and raised in England, she studied ballet for 16 years and danced with the Chelmsford Ballet Company. After coming to the United States, she continued her dance studies, taught ballet and modern jazz and, after a detour into the corporate world, is back doing what she loves.