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Review: Exquisite dancing is real magic in sumptuously successful “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker”

Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper performed a riveting duet. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)
Tara Lee and Jonah Hooper performed a riveting duet. (Photo by Charlie McCullers)

“The Nutcracker” is, well … a tough nut to crack. Since its debut more than 100 years ago, the venerable ballet has been restaged and re-imagined by countless dance companies all over the world. It even has a TV reality show, “Battle of the Nutcrackers,” which pits famous versions of the piece against one another in competition. To stand apart from the pack, a great “Nutcracker” must seamlessly blend virtuosic dance with holiday nostalgia and edgy twists to the familiar storyline.

No small feat, but with “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker,” Atlanta Ballet, in its 53rd annual staging of the Tchaikovsky classic, has found its greatness. The performance is not without flaw, but missteps are diluted by the general merriment, and at times they feel almost endearing. Like a house full of relatives visiting for Christmas, the piece is wonderfully exuberant, if occasionally overwhelming. With a host of characters — some cute, some intriguing, some just strange — the whole thing is so much fun that you quickly forgive the frenzy and join in the festivities.

The holiday spirit was contagious on opening night, which kicked off with a sweet serenade by the Georgia Youth Choir in the lobby of the beloved Fox Theatre. Inside, children (and some adults) in their best reds and greens gasped when the curtain rose to reveal a sumptuous Christmas scene.

The party scene, in other renditions of “The Nutcracker,” is sometimes plagued by lengthy pantomime and minimal choreographed dance. Thankfully, artistic director and choreographer John McFall speeds through the convoluted plot details, although the pacing in this scene verges on spastic and the stage is uncomfortably crowded.

Apprentice dancer Miguel Angel Montoya, who plays the nephew in Act I, is a beacon of joyous energy among the many bodies. In striking green, he is a perfect pied piper for the many talented young dancers in the party scene; together they handle the sophisticated choreography with polished grace.

Many of Atlanta Ballet’s full company members deliver inspired performances despite the one-dimensional, often silly character roles. As the Meissen Dolls in Act I, Peng-Yu Chen and Jared Tan embody the mechanical jerkiness of wind-up toys with blank stares and almost inhuman angularity. Theirs is arguably the most intricate choreography of the evening, and they deliver each tick, every torso twist and stiff step with fascinating clarity.

Act II is even better, and although a few of the company’s brightest stars grace the stage for only a few minutes, those minutes are well worth the wait. Nadia Mara, with her coy smile and sinewy limbs, is delightful as a Spanish dancer. But it’s her partner, Jesse Tyler, who steals the scene. He bursts onto the stage with Don Juan-like bravado and finishes every powerful leap with a flourish. In one of my favorite moments of the evening, Tyler flashes Mara a sly smile and gestures “come here” before effortlessly lifting her into an arabesque over his head.

Veteran Tara Lee is captivating as an Arabian dancer, and Rachel Van Buskirk, who plays the Sugar Plum Fairy, is a technical powerhouse. Lee’s trademark piercing gaze and her ability to stick even the most precarious lifts without the slightest falter make her ideal for her small but difficult role. Buskirk seems less committed to her character, and her focus is somewhat detached, but her many turns and balances are flawless.

Much attention is given to the inclusion of magic in this year’s production, but it is the exquisite dancing that carries the evening. McFall collaborated with illusionist Drew Thomas to produce a number of magic tricks that are performed by the cast throughout the piece. As veteran dancer John Welker performed several sleights of hand, it became clear that, while he is a great performer and character dancer, magic is not his area of expertise. In fact, Welker’s casting as the slightly sinister toymaker Drosselmeyer seems almost comical. From his scraggly wig to his half-smirk and hopeful gaze, nothing about him is evil. He’s more like the playfully eccentric, lovable uncle. And most disappointing is that Drosselmeyer dances very little.

Ironically, the most impressive magic trick takes place in one of the least successful and most disturbing scenes. The naughty young Nicolas breaks Marya’s toy Nutcracker, played by young dancer Tristian Bogost. But instead of accidentally breaking the toy, as in many “Nutcracker” productions, Nicolas knocks the boy down and cracks his skull. The young Nutcracker is lifted onto what looks like a hospital bed behind a lighted screen, and Drosselmeyer proceeds with “surgery” to no avail. It is Marya’s kiss that saves him, and when the screen is pulled aside, the young Nutcracker has been replaced, magically, with an adult version of himself.

Another moment, as cruel as a scene from “The Hunger Games,” comes later when Nicholas, with the help of some fantastically costumed rats, pushes the Nutcracker to his knees and shoves his head forward, gesturing to the rats to slaughter him. Although this moment is brief and surrounded by obvious fantasy, the implication of execution is all too real.

McFall, it seems, is determined to liven up the old classic with new tricks and surprising plot twists. But the dancing is so good that gimmicks just muddy the waters. When left to do what they do best, the Atlanta Ballet dancers don’t need illusions to create magic.

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