Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker still charms after 50 years

As an artistic event, Nutcracker does practically everything but crack nuts. The Tchaikovsky ballet provides a holiday tradition for families, a rite of passage for aspiring young dancers, and a kind of outreach program for ballet companies nationwide. This year's Atlanta Ballet production of Nutcracker features about 250 young area dancers in small roles, in addition to the company's cast of professionals. When I arrived at Saturday's matinee, I ran into a family friend who proudly pointed out that her daughter was one of the "party children" for that performance.

This year the Atlanta Ballet celebrates Nutcracker's 50th anniversary. In 1959, the New York City Ballet's legendary George Balanchine granted permission to the Atlanta company as the only regional theater to stage his version of the show. With Nutcracker's history, community importance and cash-cow status, it's almost a challenge to view it simply as a self-contained show. The Atlanta Ballet's Nutcracker proves to be charming entertainment, although at times the dance and live orchestra take a backseat to the spectacle.

Audiences gape at Nutcracker even before the show begins. The curtain features a painting of the Petrov mansion's exterior, frosted with snow and slightly cartoony, so it looks almost like a giant gingerbread house. A life-size tower clock and Uncle Drosselmeyer's (Nathan Griswold) workshop flank the stage, and some Dickensian business precedes the show with a lamplighter and a peanut seller.

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(Photo by Charlie McCullers)

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