Washingtonians are unusually lucky to have two top-notch Nutcrackers to choose from every year. The Washington Ballet’s charming D.C.-themed production is an area favorite and it is always interesting to see productions from the ballet companies the Kennedy Center presents annually. This year’s offering by the Atlanta Ballet, which opened Wednesday night and runs through Sunday, provides the home team with a dose of healthy competition.
The Atlanta Ballet’s new Nutcracker, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, was an immediate success when it premiered last year. That was partly because of its innovative use of high-tech video projections and other effects created by a first-class production-design team.
In an interview with Vanity Fair last year, Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director, Gennadi Nedvigin, described the company’s new $3.7 million production as a “virtual-reality” Nutcracker.
“The idea behind this Nutcracker is that it’s being done for today’s audience of children, teenagers, and young adults,” Nedvigin told the magazine. “We’re using a new generation of theater technology.”
While the technological bells and whistles (particularly the IMAX-like introduction to Act I, and the jumbo-sized sets in Act II) are indeed dazzling to take in, Possokhov’s choreography and staging is surely the other reason for the production’s success.
A much-beloved San Francisco Ballet principal dancer who retired in 2006, Possokhov has since become a renowned choreographer known for expertly melding 19th century classicism with 21st century flair. Having now worked with a lot of ballet companies of differing levels, Possokhov knows well how to choreograph to dancers’ strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. All of that flair and know-how was on fine display Wednesday night.
The Act I party scene at the Stahlbaum’s home was not the usual stodgy affair seen in most Nutcrackers. Here, the parents were the main attraction instead of the children or the dancing dolls. These adult guests were interested in two things only – enjoying the champagne and canoodling as much as possible. Possokhov’s intelligent use of mime in this section and throughout Act I helped create a sense of goofy fun and grown-up romance.
Things took a slightly more serious and sometimes confusing turn in Drosselmeier’s interactions with Marie, danced beautifully on Wednesday by Remi Nakano as the child Marie, and Airi Igarashi as Marie in adult form. This Drosselmeier, danced on opening night by the elegant Nikolas Gaifullin, is hard to pin down.
Atlanta Ballet’s The Nutcracker closes December 1, 2019. Details and tickets
As in most Nutcrackers, Drosselmeier here acts as a mysterious master of ceremonies. It is clear he cares about his goddaughter Marie and is intent on introducing her to new worlds and shielding her from danger. Yet he seems in a muddle at certain points throughout Act I as do some of the more detailed aspects of the narrative of this Nutcracker. There are sections toward the latter half of Act I, in particular, where it is not always clear what is happening, and that lack of clarity is one the few weak spots in this production.
Thankfully the Waltz of the Snowflakes followed by much of the dancing throughout the fast-paced Act II provide happy relief and sweep away any narrative confusion in this production.
Of all the divertissements in Act II, the Arabian and Russian dances are standouts, and the French dance – complete with hen, rooster, and six sweet little chicks – provides an adorable dose of humor. The Waltz of the Flowers showcases this company’s wonderful corps de ballet, and Igarashi and Vitor Luiz as the Nutcracker Prince are impressive in the grand pas de deux.
We hear it so often this time of year that it is easy to forget the brilliantness of Tchaikovsky’s lush music, which he was commissioned to write in 1891 for the first Nutcracker. Legend has it that not only was the ballet a complete flop when it premiered in Russia in 1892, Tchaikovsky had no love for his own score. Some historians have gone so far as to say he hated it. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Ari Pelto, brought Tchaikovsky’s magical score to life on Wednesday with care and vivacity. If the great man himself was able to pay a visit to the Kennedy Center this week, he just might change his mind.
The Nutcracker. Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Choreography by Yuri Possokhov. The Atlanta Ballet, Gennadi Nedvigin, Artistic Director. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, Ari Pelto conductor, and the Arlington Children’s Chorus. Video design by Finn Ross. Costume design by Sandra Woodall. Lighting design by David Finn. Scenic design by Tom Pye. Presented at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts through December 1, 2019. Reviewed by Maria Di Mento.