John McFall’s ‘Nutcracker’ begins its final performance run

Kristine Necessary Loveless remembers the moment she fell in love with ballet. Securing last-minute tickets, she and her family sat in one of the top rows of the Fox Theatre and watched Atlanta Ballet’s lush production of “The Nutcracker” unfold under the theater’s starry sky.

Captivated by it all — from the boisterous Trepak dancers to the sparkling Dew Drop Fairy — she and her sisters, Courtney and Abbie, determined that they would dance on that stage. Kristine joked with Courtney that they’d be Dream Fairies. A year later, they were.

The classic ballet about love and transformation, choreographed by John McFall, will begin its 23rd and final performance run Friday at the Fox, with Tchaikovsky’s score performed live by the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra. Next December, Atlanta Ballet will unveil a new version of “The Nutcracker,” choreographed by Yuri Possokhov.

RELATED: Atlanta Ballet leader John McFall plans final bow after 21st season

For many Atlantans, seeing “The Nutcracker” is a holiday tradition, and this version’s final run has stirred memories among devotees on both sides of the stage’s proscenium.

When McFall became artistic director of Atlanta Ballet in 1994, he put plans in place for a new “Nutcracker,” intent on presenting “the finest artistic product, for families, that was entertaining,” he said.

McFall moved the annual production from the Atlanta Civic Center to the atmospheric Fox, a grand landmark with a history of glamorous movie showings, legendary concerts and a community campaign to save it from demolition.

Peter Horne’s scenic designs complemented the venue’s Moorish-inspired architecture and its color palette, rich in gold leaf, with shades of red, coral and burgundy. Horne’s opulent conception was inspired by 19th century Russia, with a nod to original 1892 production’s collaborators — Tchaikovsky, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. With Judanna Lynn’s richly textured costume designs, visual elements were as freely imagined as the movie palace’s interior.

Certain intangibles bring audiences back year after year to this long running production, whether it’s the fast-paced storytelling, the thrill of watching a young dancer step on stage for the first time, or the spirit of renewal that seasoned dancers bring to a well-known pas de deux.

Jarrett Roux Jackson has seen “The Nutcracker” almost every year since she was 4 years old. She’s now passing the tradition on to her daughters, ages 1, 4 and 6. Last year, Jackson remembers sitting in the audience surrounded by families and observing as her children watched the leading girl Marya’s heroism in the battle with the Rat King and her journey to a magical kingdom, where she sees her future self in the Sugar Plum Fairy.

She’ll take the girls to see the final production. “It’s always bittersweet, or even sad, when something ends after a long time,” Jackson said. But she looks forward to helping her children notice what’s different about the new ballet, and what remains consistent.

Most who dance in “The Nutcracker” have seen it before. Vanessa Alamo went in blindly, which made her first stage experience more powerful.

As a young child, Alamo learned cultural dances from her parents’ native Peru and Colombia, but hadn’t seen full-scale ballet productions with live classical music. She came to Atlanta Ballet through an outreach program, studied on scholarship at the company’s Centre for Dance Education and was eventually cast as a party child in “The Nutcracker.”

The night before she went on stage, Alamo watched another cast’s performance. As the vibrant conception unfolded through McFall’s fast-paced, cinematic storytelling, she fully understood what she was part of.

The following night, Alamo waited in the wings to go on, feeling both fear and anticipation. When she got onstage, her mind went blank. It felt surreal to be dancing in the middle of the vision she’d seen the night before. On top of that, it was the first time anyone in her family had performed in a ballet, and the first time her parents had seen one. She felt overwhelmed with pride and excitement.

Ballet was a primary reason Alamo earned a full scholarship to Brandeis University and was first in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree. Alamo and her mother now take her young nieces to see “The Nutcracker” because they’ve seen how ballet can transform a person’s life.

“The Nutcracker” itself is a vehicle for personal transformation. For about 15 holiday seasons, audiences watched Kristine and her sisters progress through various roles. Both Courtney and Kristine eventually danced principal roles as company members.

Loveless remembers a moment during Waltz of the Flowers when she was Sugar Plum and Courtney was Dew Drop Fairy. They bowed together and circled each other on stage, and it felt as if they could talk to each other. In front of thousands of people, the sisters felt intimately connected, Loveless said, “completely in a happy place.”

Their unfettered joy is due largely to McFall’s collaborative approach. If a step wasn’t working for someone, McFall would change it the next year, Loveless said. He drew out each dancer’s unique qualities.

Since her retirement, when Loveless sees McFall’s “Nutcracker,” she reconnects to that time in her life. She’ll miss the warmth she feels watching it.

On saying goodbye to the production, McFall said, “As I have lived, I have let go.”

He spent an exhilarating career with San Francisco Ballet and brought the ideas, storytelling and spirit of collaboration he’d absorbed there to his role as artistic director.

Looking into the eyes of children about to go on stage “has the same sense of exhilaration as well,” he said.

“I can’t describe that — their happiness, their first experience,” McFall said. “I did that. But then, when you see these little kids doing it, or you see the hundreds of people I’ve collaborated with, their journeys, you fall in love with them.”

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