Atlanta Ballet: behind the scenes at the virtual ‘Nutcracker’

Atlanta Ballet dancer Airi Igarashi appearing as Marie in Yuri Possokhov's "The Nutcracker," climbs into a giant, three-ton chair that is among the eye-popping set pieces. To deal with the pandemic, the company presented an alternative version of the ballet this season. Courtesy of Gene Schiavone
Atlanta Ballet dancer Airi Igarashi appearing as Marie in Yuri Possokhov's "The Nutcracker," climbs into a giant, three-ton chair that is among the eye-popping set pieces. To deal with the pandemic, the company presented an alternative version of the ballet this season. Courtesy of Gene Schiavone

Credit: Gene Schiavone

Credit: Gene Schiavone

The holiday tradition appears in a new form in the COVID-19 era.

The Grinchy pandemic is trying to steal Christmas. But the Atlanta Ballet is fighting back.

For generations, Atlantans have celebrated the season in the company of the magical fairies, toys and battling rats of “The Nutcracker.”

The pandemic made a live performance of this venerable show impossible.

But, said the Atlanta Ballet’s artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin, “We knew that this tradition has to stay alive. We tried to find a virtual way; how we can stay here with our audience and create some joy for the season?”

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently chatted with Nedvigin during a stop at the Atlanta Ballet’s home in northwest Atlanta, where we took a behind-the-scenes look at the efforts the ballet has made to keep its dancers safe, and still keep its traditions alive.

Our conversations with Nedvigin, his dancers, and costume and set designers will be part of a special series, AJC Community Conversations, and will be streamed Dec. 17 on the Facebook and YouTube channels of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

ExploreREGISTER: AJC Community Conversations presents the Atlanta Ballet's "Nutcracker"

During an interview with AJC contributor and dance critic Cynthia Perry, Nedvigin described the precautions that the company has taken to discourage transmission of the virus — mandatory masks, temperature checks, dancers practicing in their own separate “pods,” and six feet of separation at all times.

Knowing they couldn’t stage a live performance of the ballet, the company created a film from footage collected at various Atlanta performances of the holiday classic.

That movie was screened in the first week of December to a sold-out drive-in audience in the parking lot of the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

The film is also available on-demand at AtlantaBallet.com, and is part of what the ballet is calling “The Nutcracker 2020 Experience.” In addition to the film, fans can go online to see “30 Days of Nutcracker” — dancer interviews, excerpts from the film and other tidbits available on social media through the month of December.

As Nedvigin spoke in one of the mirrored studios at the 55,000-square-foot Michael C. Carlos Dance Centre, dancers practiced to the strains of a rehearsal pianist in another studio, maintaining social distance by staying within their six-by-six-foot boxes outlined on the flexible Marley floor.

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Elsewhere in the capacious building, costume director Colleen McGonegel directed seamstresses working on flower and fairy tutus for an upcoming production of “Snow White.”

With the help of dancers Georgie Grace Butler, Kaitlin Roemer, Dominique Morel and Huiwen Peng, McGonegel demonstrated some of the 200 costumes from “The Nutcracker” that appear in the film.

Costumes are built differently now, she said. Dancers are more muscular, less waifish, and costumes from earlier years don’t fit.

Near the temperature-controlled cold room where Nutcracker costumes are stored is the scenery for the new version of the ballet, which debuted in 2018.

General manager Thomas Fowlkes climbed up on a storage bin to gesture toward the enormous set pieces that create some of the surreal, dreamlike moments in the show. The gargantuan storybook, the 20-foot-tall chair into which Maria crawls, the 30-foot cabinet that is rolled onto the stage with soldier-dancers arrayed on its shelves like celebrants on a Mardis Gras float, all take up 10 semi-trailers during load-out, Fowlkes said.

It’s true that no one leaves a show humming the scenery, Fowlkes agreed, but if it weren’t for him and McGonegel, he points out, the Atlanta Ballet dancers would be performing “naked in the dark.”

VIRTUAL EVENT

AJC Conversations: Behind the Scenes Look at Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker”

5-6 p.m. Dec. 17.

Streaming on The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Facebook and YouTube channels.

ajc.com/conversations

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