Gwinnett Ballet presents 24th annual 'Nutcracker'

Twenty-four years of baby mice. Twenty-four years of soldiers, dancing dolls, snowflakes and waltzing flowers. For the past two dozen years, Gwinnett Ballet Theatre has seen more than a thousand aspiring ballerinas pirouette across the stage in that annual spectacle of holiday tradition: "The Nutcracker."

"Nutcracker" is a phenomenon that never seems to grow old for viewers, whether they are children or adults. Year after year, generation after generation, the crowds flock to watch this glittering fairy tale about a little girl, an enchanted nutcracker toy and a dream - or is it a dream? - of a place called the Land of Sweets.

And although "Nutcracker" remains a standard of holiday delight, things do change over 24 years. For Gwinnett Ballet Theatre, this year has some exciting new treats.

Artistic Director Lisa Sheppard Robson has watched as a decade's worth of her young dancers have graduated from soldiers and mice to such bigger roles as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Arabian and Dewdrop.

"I am very excited about 'Nutcracker' this year,' she said. "The extraordinary abilities of our dancers have always amazed our audiences, this year we are rich with talent so deep we have prepared three casts of most everything ... and all are truly captivating.

"We have created a few new characters and costumes, and we have a new guest artist, Raul Peinado, originally from Madrid, Spain. He is a phenomenal dancer who makes a very dashing prince."

Bill Kress, a metro Atlanta businessman and veteran magician, returns as GBT's Herr Drosselmeyer, the kindly uncle who brings the nutcracker toy to life. Kress elicits gasps of delight from the audience as he includes slight of hand and optical illusions as a part of his role.

"This year, our Drosselmeyer has some new tricks up his sleeve," Robson said. "Let's just say that they involve our feathered friends."

There are 150 children in "The Nutcracker," divided into three casts, whose members include more than a dozen young people who are GBT scholarship students. In its first year, the program has taken in 20 youngsters between the ages of 8 and 12, given them free ballet training and encouraged them to participate in performances. "Nutcracker" will be their grand debut as they perform in a variety of roles.

Public performances of "The Nutcracker" will be presented through Dec. 18 at the Performing Arts Center at Gwinnett Center, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway in Duluth. Shows are at 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Tickets are $20 for adults and $12 for children and seniors. Group rates are available.

Tickets can be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at 404-249-6400 or by visiting the Gwinnett Center box office. For more information about "The Nutcracker," call the Gwinnett Ballet Theatre studios at 770-978-0188 or visit www.gwinnettballet.org.

Holley Calmes is a freelance writer and public relations consultant specializing in the arts. E-mail hcalmes@mindspring.com.