Atlanta Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ reflects the city’s diversity this year

Company’s efforts to attract more Black dancers begins to pay off.
Rehearsals of Atlanta Ballet's production of The Nutcracker photographed at Atlanta BAllet's midtown studios.

Credit: Kim Kenney

Credit: Kim Kenney

Kahlen Wright (left) and Severin Brotschul rehearse as Young Marie and her godfather Drosselmeier in Atlanta Ballet's "The Nutcracker." (Courtesy of Kim Kenney)

In a spacious ballet studio in West Midtown, three young dancers rehearsed the role of Young Marie, a child on the cusp of adulthood, in Atlanta Ballet’s “The Nutcracker.”

All three artists showed prodigious gifts, but the youngest, 15-year-old Kahlen Wright, brings something to the stage that may appeal to new audiences. Wright is of Asian and African American heritage.

Nearly half of Atlanta’s population is Black, and a few of this season’s Nutcracker productions reflect this cultural diversity. Among them are Ballethnic Dance Company’s “Urban Nutcracker” at Morehouse College, “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker” at the Fox Theatre and a new “Gospel Nutcracker” at Austell’s Riverside EpiCenter.

But classical ballet has historically had a diversity issue. Under Artistic Director Gennadi Nedvigin’s vision for an elite international company, Atlanta Ballet has struggled to reflect the city’s racial demographics. This season, though, Wright will join a more noticeably diverse cast during Atlanta Ballet’s annual “Nutcracker” performance running Dec. 8-26 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

The timing couldn’t be better.

Atlanta Ballet took big financial hits during the past three years, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic and because in 2021 the company moved its annual Nutcracker production from the Fox Theatre to the Cobb Energy Centre. Last year, the Fox programmed a Nutcracker touring company against Atlanta Ballet’s production and many people attended it instead, not knowing the difference, said Atlanta Ballet Executive Director Tom West. The scenario created a shortfall of nearly $1 million in 2021 and about $900,000 last year.

This year, more diverse representation on stage may make the difference. In addition to Wright, a student in Atlanta Ballet’s professional-track Academy, six Black-identifying dancers are now members of Atlanta Ballet 2, a training company at the school’s top level. Four of these dancers joined second-year member Emma Sophia Robinson this fall, and a sixth was recently recruited from Brazil.

They join three Black-identifying members of the main company to comprise an unprecedented nine Black dancers across the main and second companies. About 200 children from the company’s school and community engagement programs will fill out the production’s four casts.

Efforts the ballet has taken to diversify the company include enhancing the scholarship program, recruiting at auditions and competitions abroad and creating pay equity for dancers.

Rehearsals of Atlanta Ballet's production of The Nutcracker photographed at Atlanta Ballet's midtown studios.

Credit: Kim Kenney

icon to expand image

Credit: Kim Kenney

In rehearsal, Wright practiced a duet with Severin Brotschul, a company member dancing as Marie’s godfather Drosselmeier. They spun and glided in circles, his cape swirling as she folded in and out of his arms, covering her eyes, afraid to look, then looking.

Inspired by the Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” Wright left hip-hop dance for ballet at age 9 and soon was chosen for Decade 2 Dance, the company’s 10-year scholarship program for select students from underrepresented communities.

The program started in 2018, when Atlanta Ballet joined the Equity Project, an initiative of Dance/USA, Dance Theatre of Harlem and the International Association of Blacks in Dance to increase the presence of Black individuals in the ballet field.

Wright, one of the first Decade 2 Dance scholars, hopes to become a principal dancer. She possesses the attributes — the right height and body type, along with the mindset, work ethic, musicality and stage presence. But many Decade 2 Dance scholars eventually change interests or choose college rather than pursue ballet careers.

That’s why recruitment is important, although attracting and retaining dancers at the highly competitive level Nedvigin’s artistic vision demands is not easy, either. He’s made numerous offers to dancers who fit his aesthetic but most chose higher salaries from larger companies.

The racial reckoning of 2020 saw increased pressure from the local community to hire a Black female dancer after Nedvigin didn’t renew the contract of the company’s sole Black female dancer in 2018. But the supply of top-level Black and brown classical dancers did not meet the increased demand, West said.

Sharon Story, dean of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education
(Courtesy of Atlanta Ballet)

Credit: Handout

icon to expand image

Credit: Handout

“We’ve been looking for dancers, even before the Equity Project,” said Sharon Story, dean of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, on recruiting Black and brown dancers. “But to be honest, there weren’t many dancers out there.”

Critics disagreed, saying Atlanta Ballet leaders weren’t looking hard enough.

Story and Nedvigin have since doubled down. They’ve hosted auditions here and in eight North American cities. They’ve attended ballet competitions in countries spanning from Brazil and Argentina to Germany, Italy and Japan. They’ve watched numerous auditions over Zoom and nearly 1,000 video auditions.

Through this process, Story and Nedvigin have learned more about what dancers seek. Students seeking positions with second companies often look at the main company’s track record for hiring dancers from its second company. Nedvigin has hired 14 dancers out of Atlanta Ballet 2 since it was formed in 2018, and nine remain company members.

Gennadi Nedvign, artistic director of Atlanta Ballet
(Courtesy of Atlanta Ballet)

Credit: Handout

icon to expand image

Credit: Handout

Status of the main company and pay are also strong selling points, Nedvigin said. Last year, Atlanta Ballet eliminated its low-paying apprentice program. New dancers now join Atlanta Ballet as full company members and earn a living wage under a new pay structure.

But financial rewards don’t address the emotional challenges faced by young artists from underrepresented communities who strive to succeed within predominantly white organizations.

Angela Harris, executive artistic director of Dance Canvas, an Atlanta-based nonprofit that promotes diversity in dance, said Black performers often face unconscious biases. Working in a studio every day where few if any co-workers look like you can take a toll.

“It’s an added layer of mental toughness that Black dancers have to have,” said Harris, “trying to figure out how to exist in places that clearly ‘other’ you.”

It’s also important for those dancers to feel they are represented among the company’s leadership, Harris said.

While one third of the second company’s dancers identify as Black, there are no Black individuals among executive leadership positions. However, Atlanta Ballet has prioritized diversity when hiring faculty and administrative staff, said Atlanta Ballet chief marketing officer Tricia Ekholm. And since 2020, Claudia Schreier, a New York-based African American artist, has served as Atlanta Ballet’s choreographer-in-residence.

Story has worked with Christina Johnson, former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Melanie Person, co-director of The Ailey School, to help connect with potential recruits and address the unique pressures Black dancers often face.

Some adjustments have been as quick and simple as changing the dress code to allow flesh-toned tights and shoes instead of just pink to create a more inclusive environment. Others are more long-term like pairing Academy students with the same teacher for the year to help foster relationships and trust.

Back in the studio, Wright and Brotschul continued their duet. Wright leaped forward, supported by Brotschul, then swept her legs to one side, spiralling her body around his back as she caught the music’s momentum.

Wright performed the role last year, but Nedvigin said she’s reached a new level of maturity. “I think she will really open this role for herself much, much wider,” he said.

Wright looks forward to imbuing the role with more full-body expressiveness and relating to others on stage to more fully convey the story to the audience.

“When it comes to being a minority,” she said, “I’m glad that I get to represent my heritage and (let) other people — kids who look like me — get to see me on stage and get inspired.”


DANCE PREVIEW

“The Nutcracker.” Atlanta Ballet. Dec. 8-26. $30-$158. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-892-3303, atlantaballet.com

“Ballethnic’s Urban Nutcracker.” Ballethnic Dance Company. Dec. 8-10. $35-$80. Martin Luther King Jr. International Chapel at Morehouse College, 830 Westview Drive, SW, Atlanta. 404 762-1416 eventbrite.com.

“The Hip-Hop Nutcracker.” Dec. 3. $40-$70. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree Street NE Atlanta. 855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

“The Gospel Nutcracker.” Dec. 17. $55-$85. Riverside EpiCenter, 135 Riverside Parkway, Austell. thegospelnutcracker.com.

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