Atlanta Ballet’s large rehearsal studio is a flurry of Nutcracker activity. Corps de ballet Snowflakes leap and glide across the floor. In one corner, artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin quietly coaches Emily Carrico and a bearded Denys Nedak in their grand pas de deux.
The company’s répétiteurs sit at a long table, watching and taking notes. Dozens of dancers sit against the walls, waiting for their cues.
After a brief break, Drosselmeier enters with a flourish, pushing a large sleigh loaded with gifts. He is grand, imperious in a flowing green cape. This is Jacob Bush and he immediately takes charge of the action: He gives the child Marie the eponymous nutcracker, entertains the children with puppets and dolls and encourages the tipsy adult party guests to dance around the maypole. He is the quintessential master of ceremonies.
In this critically acclaimed Nutcracker, created for Atlanta Ballet in 2018 by Yuri Possokhov, Drosselmeier drives the story throughout, unlike more conventional productions where he is the old guy with an eye patch who largely disappears after the Act I party scene.
The role here is also more technically demanding, Bush says, with variations as challenging as the ballet’s grand pas deux.
He and the rest of the company will perform The Nutcracker December 9-26 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center.
If Bush is thinking about anything except his next step in this rehearsal, it doesn’t show, but this is the beginning of the end of his career with Atlanta Ballet. He will take his final bow on December 23, moving on to explore musical theater and enjoy the freelance life for a while.
“I’ve been here for a long time, 15 seasons, and I want to go out on top,” says Bush during a break in rehearsals. “It’s time. I want to create the next chapter and let the next generation take over.”
He’s already done a little moonlighting. In October he sang and danced in Out Front Theatre Company’s production of Kinky Boots. A photo on his Instagram account shows him in full drag makeup and bouffant blonde wig, ready for action in that production.
Bush began his ballet career at the Minnesota Dance Theatre, where at age 7 he was a mouse in The Nutcracker. He became a student at the Atlanta Ballet school when he was 12, joined the fellowship program (now Atlanta Ballet 2) at 16 and the main company a year later. Five years into his tenure, he moved to Germany to dance with the Theater Augsburg. It helped him grow as a dancer and as a person, Bush says. Artistic director John McFall welcomed him back two years later.
During the McFall years, Bush danced almost every role in The Nutcracker, including Drosselmeyer. When Nedvigin commissioned Possokhov to create his lavish new production, Bush was one of three dancers cast as his Drosselmeier, a more dominant character than in the McFall version (and whose name takes a new distinctive spelling). He takes control of the action, much the way Bush is now taking control of his career.
Bush’s Atlanta Ballet career has been rich and varied. In Helen Pickett’s Camino Real, he spoke on stage for the first time in the role of Gutman. “I used to sit in the bathtub at home and work on my lines, trying to get a Southern accent,” he says.
He eagerly embraced neoclassical ballets such as Possokhov’s Classical Symphony, Helgi Tomasson’s 7 for Eight and Liam Scarlett’s Vespertine, all highlights for him.
He is equally at home in cutting-edge contemporary ballets and the classics, which allowed him to roll with the company’s change in leadership in 2016 and continue to land principal roles under Nedvigin.
Bush enjoys trying anything new. In October, he was one of a small group of dancers chosen by Atlanta Ballet’s resident choreographer Claudia Schreier to perform her Romeo and Juliet inside Washington’s National Cathedral as part of a Berlioz and Shakespeare festival. Bush was Romeo — a role he says was always at the top of his wish list.
Back in 2011, he danced Christopher Hanson’s demanding trio Rite of Spring with Tara Lee and Christian Clark (both now with Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre.) “I don’t think I have ever felt more exhilarated or tired or pushed to the limit,” he says, describing the ballet’s stark set design — a wall enclosed the space, he recalls, as if there was no way out.
Lee is one of several female dancers who can’t say enough about Bush’s talent and generosity as a partner. “Jacob’s dancing has an electric physicality that can only be present when one is completely devoted to the moment,” she says. “It was wonderful to partner with that level of fresh exuberance; he inspired me to match his joy and commitment.”
Terminus’ Rachel Van Buskirk, who danced with Atlanta Ballet for 13 years, was another appreciative partner. “Some of my favorite onstage moments have been partnering with Jacob,” she says. “He always encouraged me to take big risks and to trust that he’ll always be there to catch me, in dance and in life. Hours of discovery in the studio translated to freedom onstage. Jacob would get a mischievous glint in his eyes and I knew it meant “go for it girl.” The two of them have remained best friends, talking at least once a day.
This past September, Bush partnered Carrico in Balanchine’s Serenade. Bush was her first partner when she joined the company and she says he went out of his way to ensure she felt secure and confident. “He never made me feel inexperienced, which I most certainly was!” she says. “We have taken many bows together, but even more enjoyable have been the laughs we shared. Jacob always gave his 150 percent in every moment of every rehearsal but was able to keep the energy light and everyone laughing.”
Bush says he enjoys being a team player and inspiring others, which he does with humor and an infectious smile. That smile, however, elicited a reprimand recently. “Your joy is showing too much,” he was told after his Serenade performances with Carrico. “It’s not a smile ballet.”
Smiles or no, his 2022 Serenade performances represented a full-circle moment for him. He was understudy for the Waltz Boy role in 2008, a year after joining the company, and got to perform it just once when another dancer fell ill. This time around, he remembered the jitters he had that year but quickly zeroed in on his goal: “To make Emily look beautiful.”
Magnetic. Courageous. Electric. Expressive. Joyful. A wise and grounded leader. The adjectives flow freely when Bush’s friends and colleagues talk about him. Sharon Story, dean of Atlanta Ballet Centre for Dance Education, adds a few more, saying his enthusiasm, artistry, professionalism and imagination have inspired many young dancers at the school, as well as his colleagues in the company and, of course, audiences.
Bush describes himself as not just a dancer, but an entertainer, and it shows. Perhaps, then, he should have the last word — from his recent post on Instagram: “Thank you, Atlanta Ballet, for the honor of allowing me to represent you. Thank you to EVERYONE who ever bought a ticket to our performances. It’s because of you I made my dream come true!”
Bush will perform Drosselmeier on December 9 and 23 at 7:30 p.m., and December 11 and 18 at 2 p.m. (Casting always subject to change)
Gillian Anne Renault has been an ArtsATL contributor since 2012 and Senior Editor for Art+Design and Dance since 2021. She has covered dance for the Los Angeles Daily News, Herald Examiner and Ballet News, and on radio stations such as KCRW, the NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, California. Many years ago, she was awarded an NEA Fellowship to attend American Dance Festival’s Dance Criticism program.