The first moments are like being shot out of a cannon, as video images projected across the stage spin us rapidly through a snowy night to a German city in the early 19th century. The sense of speed in this flying, swooping perspective is intense, especially if you’re prone to vertigo, and it’s a relief when the focus finally settles on the dancer who plays Drosselmeier, the clockmaker and gift-bearing godfather who sets the story in motion. Through an alchemy of video projection and action on the stage, Drosselmeier appears to be bounding through his own fantastical movie, which whirls us from his magical shop to the doorstep of the Stahlbaum household.
The scrim lifts, the video images vanish, and the familiar story begins, told through dancing and lively stage action. But the feeling of freedom and high spirits never leaves. Ice skaters and skiers glide past the house, a couple smooches and giddy young women cease waltzing for a moment to stare at them with longing. This opening montage sets up the theme of discovery in this “Nutcracker,” where all the traditional events happen, but nothing is as you expect.
Drosselmeier is not a remote, mysterious figure, as in most versions of the ballet. Instead, he’s the embodiment of pizazz, running about in his satin breeches, orchestrating all the fun with his gleaming hair flying. He gets on the floor to play with the children, and he conjures a lively show-within-a-show in the swanky parlor, full of music-hall touches and Old World details that plunge us into a bygone age that still feels as fresh and current as today. This is a party, after all, and so the adults, all hopped up on champagne, try a formal maypole dance but make a mess of it and end in a heap, all perfectly in time with Tchaikovsky’s stately music.
It’s all in the spirit of merrymaking. The whimsy is enhanced by the graceful Empire silhouettes of Sandra Woodall’s costumes, the clever tricks of dimension in Tom Pye’s set designs and the warmth of David Finn’s lighting.
But the decor and special effects never outshine the cheerful dance energy of this ballet, and that is a testament to Possokhov’s exceptionally fluid and musical choreography. Longtime dancegoers may recall, back in 2007, when the Bolshoi Ballet performed his “Cinderella,” set on the moon. Courage and creativity mark his work as well as seamless construction. He’s willing to upend convention to get at the heart of the story.
Marie, the Stahlbaum child (delightfully portrayed by Remi Nakano) whose dream of adventure and romance whisks us from reality to fantasy, faces invading mice who roll into her parlor on their bellies, like kids on sleds. The ballerina dolls battle alongside the wooden soldiers (yay, female power). Marie dreams of herself as a grownup, and the Waltz of the Snowflakes features a tender pas de deux between the adult Marie, danced by the notably musical Airi Igarashi, and Vitor Luiz’s handsome Nutcracker Prince. In a surprising but effective use of contemporary dance, Possokhov includes floor work throughout this ballet, always in keeping with the overall flowing, spiraling quality of movement.
On evidence of Wednesday’s performance, fluidity is also a hallmark of the Atlanta Ballet dancers, all of whom acquitted themselves beautifully. Of special note were Lucas Labrador, Emma Guertin and Ashley Wegmann in the ebulllient Spanish dance. Jackie Nash and Jacob Bush added terrific comic flair to a French dance that parodied every 19th-century ballet mannerism in good fun.
Technological effects continued, with huge storybooks suspended in midair and pages flipping wondrously to announce the next scene. But the most remarkable, even magical, feature of this “Nutcracker” is that nothing is what you expect, and yet through its innovations and creativity, it finds fresh ways to illuminate the age-old themes of love, play and endless possibility.
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Atlanta Ballet performs “The Nutcracker,” with cast changes, through Dec. 1 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $49-$249. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org