It’s the last season for fans of Atlanta Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” to stroll down Peachtree Street toward the Fox Theatre’s bright marquee, then pass through the arcade and popcorn-scented foyer into the old movie house, its minarets and starry sky both exotic and familiar.
After Atlanta Ballet debuts its one-year-old “Nutcracker” at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center this week, the production will begin its final run at the Fox. In 2020, Atlanta Ballet will take its luminous new production, choreographed by Yuri Possokhov, to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
For more than 25 years, Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” enjoyed a synergistic relationship with the Fox Theatre, said Arturo Jacobus, president and CEO of Atlanta Ballet. But in recent years, conflicting business models have resulted in a parting of ways — an amicable separation that some Atlanta Ballet veterans think is a mistake.
The Fox Theatre inspired designs for John McFall’s 1995 “Nutcracker,” its Russian-themed decor merging with the Fox’s Moorish interior to an immersive effect. Even after Atlanta Ballet moved its repertory programs to the Cobb Energy Centre in 2008, the company kept its most popular show anchored in the historic heart of the city. For many Atlantans, going to the Fox to see “The Nutcracker” became a holiday tradition.
The theater’s charm made up for its limitations — parking conundrums, a shallow stage by ballet standards and cramped backstage areas. Atlanta Ballet accepted the wide, shallow-raked house’s sightlines and acoustical challenges, Jacobus said, but the situation wasn’t ideal.
Nor was it ideal for the Fox, said Allan Vella, president and CEO of the Fox Theatre. Unlike most touring shows, Atlanta Ballet needs a week of dark days in the theater for rehearsals, load-in and tech. Because the Fox relies on ancillary income, like concessions and sponsorships to cover its overhead, each dark day represents lost revenue. A Broadway touring show or rock concert can come in fully rehearsed and set up in about eight to 36 hours.
“The Nutcracker’s” dark week wasn’t ideal, but Vella understood that it was necessary for a local production, and supported it.
As with ballet companies around the U.S., Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” production is a cash cow that pays for more adventurous programming throughout the season. Roughly one-fourth of Atlanta Ballet’s annual revenue comes from its “Nutcracker,” and Jacobus saw a chance to increase that number with a longer production run that could accommodate audiences’ busy holiday schedules.
Top U.S. ballet companies typically run 30 to 40 Nutcracker shows between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Jacobus said. The Fox gave Atlanta Ballet only 19 to 22 shows a season, starting in the second week of December. Jacobus tried to negotiate with the Fox for a longer run but got nowhere with Vella, who would have had to turn away other holiday-themed shows that came through town in late November and early December.
Jacobus had meanwhile identified a new market — residents of the northern metro area who generally don’t go to the Fox, but would come to the Cobb Energy Centre. Atlanta Ballet considered a “split season” that would open a run at the Cobb Energy Centre in late November, then move to the Fox for its usual mid-to-late December run. They crunched the numbers, and it didn’t pencil out, Jacobus said, but the newer venue lingered in their minds.
When Atlanta Ballet’s contract with the Fox was up for renewal last year, Jacobus again asked for a longer run. The Fox granted them only the usual December dates. Within that run, Vella gave Jacobus the weekends he asked for, on condition that the Fox could present touring shows on some weeknights and compensate Atlanta Ballet for the days taken back.
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Jacobus saw the restriction on dates as evidence that Fox administrators were “not anxious to renew beyond these last two years.”
With a new “Nutcracker” about to debut, the advantages of moving to Cobb became apparent, Jacobus said. Designed for live performance, with excellent sightlines and acoustics, the 2,750-seat theater had “everything you could ask for in terms of loading docks and wings and flies and technology,” Jacobus said. Access by car and parking were easier. Excited, they envisioned their sparkling new production on the Cobb Energy Centre stage.
Ultimately, Jacobus said, non-renewal with the Fox was “pretty much by mutual agreement.”
Still, long-time associates of Atlanta Ballet are concerned that leaving the Fox is a mistake.
David Tatu, former Atlanta Ballet production director, recalled when the International Ballet Rotaru performed a simultaneous run of its Nutcracker at the Atlanta Civic Center in the 1990s. People often showed up at the Fox with tickets for Rotaru’s production. “It showed that people don’t care whose Nutcracker it is,” Tatu said. “They go to the Fox because it’s a family tradition.”
Jacobus realizes the Ballet may lose audiences to the Fox next year. He’s betting on the new production’s sheer grandeur and the untapped market in the northern suburbs. “I think we’ll pick up just as many, or more, audiences than we’ll lose,” he said.
Business interests aside, Vella agrees that Atlanta Ballet’s new Nutcracker is “beautiful, well done, and their creative director is amazing.”
“There’s no ill will. We wish them great success,” said Vella. “And the door’s always open.”
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