Christmas comes but once a year, and it brings with it performances of ‘The Nutcracker,’ which always spread Christmas cheer. The Atlanta Ballet’s production of the holiday classic, now at the Kennedy Center, is an impressive blend of heart-warming tradition and artistic innovation.
Based on E.T.A Hoffman’s early 19th-century story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the story opens on a German village on Christmas Eve. The production’s use of animated graphics (designed by Finn Ross) at the start whirls us through snow-covered streets, arriving at the house of Drosselmeier, a mysterious man (magician?) preparing presents for a party. The mix of Nikolas Gaifullin’s live action performance with the graphic overlay is charming and cheerful, and also offers a nice explanatory context for younger audience members.
Drosselmeier arrives with aplomb at his family’s home with a sleigh full of gifts for the children, including his niece Marie, who receives the titular Nutcracker. As with the best Christmas stories, magic and mischief are soon afoot, as Drosselmeier returns to the home, after the party, to whisk Marie into an enchanted storybook world where her Nutcracker becomes a prince who must do battle with a malevolent band of rats.
Tom Pye’s set design is dazzling. Marie enters into the enchanted world in shrunken form, indicated by the gargantuan set pieces. The reveal of this newly oversize set, combined with Tchaikovsky’s score (expertly realized by the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra), makes for a moment of grandeur. A tableau of Marie crouching in a now-gigantic armchair heightens the sense of scale and creates an Alice-in-Wonderland sense of whimsy.
… an impressive blend of heart-warming tradition and artistic innovation.
Nikolas Gaifullin plays the Master of Ceremonies to Marie and her Nutcracker Prince’s journey into this magical landscape. With a swirling cape and large dash of bravado, Gaifullin leavens Drosselmeier’s aura of mystery (and potential menace) with a sense of adventure and wonder. He may be the puppeteer pulling the strings, but is also a guide for his niece on this magical night.
Airi Igarashi as Marie is a beautifully confident dancer, gallantly partnered by Vitor Luiz as the Nutcracker Prince (Choreography is by Yuri Possokhov). Their pas de deux are some of the most appealing dancing in the show, culminating in Marie’s nuanced performance of “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”
Sandra Woodall’s costumes are key in bringing the storybook wonderland alive. Her fun and furry rats (who creep in on skateboards) provide some thrills. The snowflakes, whose waltz closes the first half, are outfitted in gorgeous, iridescent white.
As Marie and her Prince enter another storybook of Drosselmeier’s choosing in the second Act, they meet a cast of characters, who introduce themselves in dance. As with the rest of the show, there’s something for both parents and children. A beautiful reinterpretation of the Arabian dance is compelling and haunting, especially with David Finn’s aurora borealis lighting design. A funny interlude with some strutting chickens will provide some chuckles.
Eventually, the magic comes to a safe and happy end. Christmas revelers of all ages can, and should, enjoy this rendition of a holiday favorite.
Advisory: Some scary moments (a simulated battle).
Running time: About two hours with one 20-minute intermission.
“The Nutcracker” runs through Dec. 1 at the Kennedy Center. For tickets or more information, click here.