Nena Gilreath performs the Spanish dance in Ballethnic’s “Urban Nutcracker.”

Mixed nuts

Ballerinas put their unique spins on a holiday classic

Story by Kelundra Smith

Dancing sugar plum fairies are a sure sign of the holidays as ballet companies across the metro area offer “Nutcracker” productions for different tastes. These ballerinas will perform onstage in different adaptations of “The Nutcracker” and offer their perspectives on the traditional tale of magic and mice.

Anna Radik

The Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” has been touring North America for the past 25 years, and hosts youth auditions in every city to give local children the opportunity to dance with professionals. Ukranian born soloist and audition director Anna Radik has been with the company for five years, and says that it holds more than 100 auditions every year. Radik will perform the Parents, Snowflakes and Chinese variation dances this season.

Living Intown: What drew you to the ballet?

My parents are both musicians, and my mother worked in the International Opera House for 16 years, so dance is something I have done all my life. When I was 2 years old, I was standing backstage watching performances, so it’s something that I chose when I was very little. I like being onstage, period.

What is unique about the “Great Russian Nutcracker?”

It is performed to Tchaikovsky’s full score, including the prologue, and the set incorporates the Moscow skyline. At the end of the first act, Father Christmas escorts Masha to the “Land of Peace and Harmony” on a beautiful Russian sleigh. There is a beautiful life-size Matrushka. Exclusive to Moscow Ballet is “Dove of Peace,” a dance in the second act. Also, all of the costumes are handmade in Russia.

What is the appeal of “The Nutcracker?”

I think it’s a tradition in many countries. It’s nice when the whole family can gather together and have a nice time at the theatre, especially for the kids who are performing onstage with the professional dancers.

Nov. 26-27. Moscow Ballet, Ferst Center for the Arts, 350 Ferst Drive. 404-894-2787. nutcracker.com

Courtney Walker

Courtney Walker of Macon has been a company member with the Georgia Ballet for four seasons. She has been in eight different professional productions of “The Nutcracker” across the southeast, and looks forward to performing in this “magical, classical, festive” show every season. She will dance the Sugar Plum Fairy and Snow Queen roles in the Georgia Ballet production.

Which is your favorite role?

The Sugar Plum Fairy is my favorite role to dance. The music is beautiful and it’s a very grand and elegant role. She’s royalty, but also a fairy, so it can be delicate. The coda is the most challenging part, which she does with her partner. You’ve finished a pretty tiring solo and then you go into the hardest part of the dance with very technical turns, so keeping up stamina is hard.

What is the appeal of “The Nutcracker?”

I think the music has a lot to do with it. Tchaikovsky ballets have beautiful music. It is a tradition like putting up the tree. The visual effects with the tree growing on the stage give it a wow factor, but it’s all built around this dreamlike story. In our production, we do some fog effects before the Snow Queen comes out and snow falls on the stage.

What makes the Georgia Ballet experience unique?

The Georgia Ballet has a full professional company, but it’s a small company, so when you go see the production, it’s in a smaller theater so that you can get up close and personal and really see things. I think the snow scene is the most striking of the ballet with the effect of the snowfall, blue lights and white costumes.

Dec. 1-3. Georgia Ballet. Jennie T. Anderson Theater at the Cobb Civic Center, 548 S. Marietta Pkwy. 770-528-8490. georgiaballet.org

Jackie Nash

A holiday staple for 87 years, the Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” returns to the Fox Theatre, offering the final year former artistic director John McFall’s choreography will grace the stage. Ballerina Jackie Nash moved to Atlanta from Connecticut to participate in Atlanta Ballet’s apprentice program in 2009, and became a company member in 2011.

How often have you danced in “The Nutcracker?”

My very first “Nutcracker” was in elementary school in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I was a soldier. At Connecticut Dance School, I danced Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Then I danced a version in Philadelphia that was American Revolution themed — they called it “Nutcracker 1776.” Now, I’m in the Atlanta Ballet version and for the past two years I have been doing the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Spanish Dance.

What are the challenges?

Sustaining your energy throughout the entire run is the hardest part. Normally, when we do shows, we have four to seven performances. With “The Nutcracker,” there are more than 40, and even though we get shows off, it’s a challenge to keep your body and mind in working order.

How does the Atlanta Ballet keep the show fresh over decades?

There are a lot of small changes, and people who attend every year will notice the difference. The magic trick is different, the Chinese dance sometimes has a panda or a dragon, and the way that Marya and the nephew meet in the party scene changes. The scenic designer has incorporated the design elements from the interior of the Fox Theatre, so when you go into the theater from the street you feel like you’re on the set, in the Petrov living room. We also have a live orchestra that keeps the energy fresh.

Dec. 8-28. Atlanta Ballet, The Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. 404-881-2100. foxtheatre.org

Nena Gilreath

Ballethnic Dance Company co-founder and executive artistic director Nena Gilreath moved to Atlanta in 1990 with her husband, Waverly Lucas, after dancing with Dance Theatre of Harlem. After one season with the Atlanta Ballet, they decided to start their own company to encourage African-American children to pursue ballet. The “Urban Nutcracker” debuted at the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Chapel in 1992. To this day, Gilreath dances the Spanish Dance and the Snow Queen roles.

What inspired the creation of “Urban Nutcracker?”

When we started Ballethnic, we worked in a lot of housing projects to expose ballet to children, and we used the “Nutcracker” music as an introduction to classical ballet. A lot of people said to us that black children would not want to dance to classical music, and we proved people wrong because we were hugely successful when we went into Techwood Homes.

What makes “Urban Nutcracker” different?

Dancers of color hold the lead roles, and are not just relegated to the roles created for people of color. It’s set on Auburn Avenue in the 1940s, which gives us an opportunity to not only make it relevant to audiences, but also educate them about the rich history of the area. … We also changed some of the character names to make it more relatable. We named the Sugar Plum Fairy the Brown Sugar Fairy, the Cavalier the Chocolatier and the Russian dance the Black Russians. In many productions of “The Nutcracker,” the set, costumes and lighting have a lot of pink, but we wanted to celebrate the earthiness of brown.

Why does “Urban Nutcracker” resonate with audiences?

Everybody can relate to the holidays, no matter what and how they celebrate. People are ready to get together with family for the holidays, and our production is multigenerational, with dancers age 5 all the way into their 70s. We have partnered with the HJC Bowden Senior Multipurpose Facility in East Point for a long time, and every year a group performs with us.

Dec. 9-10. Ballethnic Dance Company, King Chapel, 830 Westview Drive. 404-762-1416. ballethnic.org

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.

X