Behind the scenes at ‘The Nutcracker’
Alpharetta woman coordinates student dancers for beloved holiday show
By KATIE VanBRACKLE
Attending Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” at the Fox Theatre is a beloved holiday tradition for many families in the metro area. Each year, Artistic Director John McFall ups the magic ante, keeping the company’s most popular production vibrant and fresh.
Speaking of magic, during the first two weekends of the run, Dec. 6-15, the role of mysterious toymaker Herr Drosselmeyer will be played by master illusionist Drew Thomas, whom you may remember as a finalist on NBC’s hit reality-TV series “America’s Got Talent.”
What won’t change in this year’s production is the appearance of more than 250 Atlanta area school children performing alongside the professional company, which will be the first chance for many of them to experience the magic of being on the Fox Theatre stage.
As you can imagine, it takes quite a bit of organization to corral and coordinate 250 young, costume-clad, nervous-jittery dancers behind stage. Rising to the challenge is Alpharetta resident Heather Conley, Cobb Centre principal of the Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education.
Conley entered the dance world rather late by ballet standards – taking her first class at age 10. But a natural talent and strong determination propelled her through a college degree in dance, followed by positions with several professional companies before settling in Georgia as an instructor and administrator with Atlanta Ballet.
During “Nutcracker” season, Conley is extremely involved behind the scenes, making sure all student dancers are accounted for, properly dressed, prepped and ready to go for show time. She also plans and coordinates performances for the Atlanta Ballet Performance Ensemble, which travels around metro Atlanta performing “Nutcracker” vignettes during the holiday season.
Conley’s own experience as a dancer in many “Nutcrackers” through the years helps her understand the excitement of all the young snow fairies and mice under her care.
“When the kids audition, we look for how animated they are and how they project even in a dance studio. These kids are eager to perform. They may say, ‘I’m nervous’ backstage, but once they step into the lights, they go full out and give it their all and come off stage so excited,” she said.
New to the cast this year is 10-year-old Sophia Morro, a fifth-grader at Roswell North Elementary School, who will appear as “Mabel Mouse.”
“I’m the second mouse to come onstage,” said Morro. “Mabel is sort of a mischievous mouse. I get to kick somebody and if the cheese prop gets out of control, I have to handle it. I’ve had to get used to dancing in a mouse head at every rehearsal. It’s sort of like a helmet and pretty heavy. But I’m so excited to be there that I don’t mind at all.”
Madeline Murray, a 15-year-old from Johns Creek, will be returning for her third year at the Fox Theatre, this time in multiple roles as a member of the infantry and the cavalry and also as a dream fairy.
“‘The Nutcracker’ is my favorite part of the year,” she said. “I love performing at the Fox with the company. It’s my dream to dance with Atlanta Ballet as a professional.”
Previously a student at Chattahoochee High School, Murray is now home-schooled, which allows her to attend daily dance rehearsals. She performed in Atlanta Ballet’s “Snow White” and will appear as an Italian dancer in “Pinocchio” in February.
Helping girls like Madeline and Sophia follow their dreams and develop as ballet dancers is what drives Conley every day as an instructor and Atlanta Ballet administrator. It’s what makes the long hours and endless checklists during “Nutcracker” season easy to handle. She is thrilled to share her love of ballet with the next generation.
Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” runs from Dec. 6 – 29 at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.
Tickets start as low as $20 and can be purchased by phone at 855-ATL-TIXX, in person at the Fox Theatre Box Office and the Atlanta Ballet Box Office or online at www.atlantaballet.com.
Fun Facts: Atlanta Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’
- Atlanta Ballet’s female dancers wear out more than 2,000 pairs of pointe shoes each season.
- Atlanta Ballet’s “Nutcracker” is the only version in the metro area performed with a live orchestra and choir.
- 20 pounds of snow fall during each performance.
- 300,000 watts of electricity are used during each performance, more than enough to light a stadium.
- The evil Rat King is 8 feet tall.
- Nutcracker’s mask is made of foam and weighs 2 pounds.
- Baby animals were the inspiration for last season’s new snow fairy costumes, designed to be softer, sweeter and sparkly versions of the sleek, grown-up snowflake costumes.
- The dancer, always a man, who wears the 75-pound Mother Matrushka costume stands on a platform 15 feet tall.
- It takes five tractor trailers and three Ryder trucks to get all the sets, costumes and props to the Fox Theatre; then it takes 40 crew members more than 16 hours to haul it all inside.