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After 14 years, Atlanta Ballet lead dancer still believes in ‘Nutcracker’

By Howard Pousner / hpousner@ajc.com

Audiences from sea to shining sea adore “The Nutcracker,” but what about the professional dancers who have performed in the holiday favorite every year since they could barely reach the barre?

Do they share the audience’s ardor, or are they so weary of the E.T.A. Hoffmann story that they harbor secret desires to haul off and smack the Mouse King in the snout?

Alessa Rogers, one of four Atlanta Ballet dancers playing the lead role of Marya at the Fox Theatre through Dec. 29, is in the first camp.

“I can’t really speak for every dancer of course, but I’m one who really loves ‘Nutcracker,’” the 26-year-old said. “I don’t love hearing the music in every book store and coffee shop and mall that I go into, but I really do have a lot of fun doing ‘Nutcracker,’ and especially doing a role like Marya.”

For Rogers, who danced in her first “Nutcracker” as a 12-year-old North Carolina Dance Theatre student, part of the enjoyment is measuring her progress as an artist. As a student, she portrayed Marya in “Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker” in her first year here, in 2006.

In recent years, Marya’s coming-of-age story has been danced by a professional, a role consequently enhanced by artistic director-choreographer John McFall. Rogers, who stepped up to the professional company in 2007, is the only dancer who’s played the character in both manifestations.

“So I think it’s a neat thing to have grown and evolved with Marya,” she said.

This year she’s sharing the role with Jackie Nash, Nicole Jones and Xiwen Li.

“Of course you have to think ‘How do I keep it fresh? How do I keep it spontaneous and not make it seen like it’s the 300th time that I’ve done this?’” Rogers acknowledged. “It’s just part of the challenge, and I think it’s fun.

“John McFall gives us a lot of freedom to find those little nuances to make it feel like you’re doing it for the first time,” she said. “It’s live theater so it is different every time, even if you want it to be more consistent.”

A big twist this season is that magician Drew Thomas, who added illusions to last year’s production, is dancing the role of toymaker Drosselmeyer through Dec. 15. After Thomas departs, company dancers John Welker and Jesse Tyler will be ones with Thomas’ tricks up their sleeves.

Performances are 7:30 p.m. Fridays (except 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 27); 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays (except 2 and 7 p.m. Dec. 22). Also: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 23; 1 p.m. Dec. 24; 7:30 p.m. Dec. 26. 660 Peachtree St. N.E., Atlanta. Tickets, $20-$120, via 855-285-8499, www.foxatltix.com or www.atlantaballet.com.

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