You'll see Jonah Hooper in the Atlanta Ballet's perennial holiday show The Nutcracker, playing through Dec. 29 at the Fox Theatre, but you may not recognize him. Hooper, a 31-year-old native of Blue Ridge, Ga., dancing in his 11th season with the Atlanta Ballet, plays the hissable, heavily costumed role of the Rat King, as well as offering a less fearsome turn as Maria's father. Having played the lead in such previous Atlanta ballets as The Great Gatsby, he offers a perspective of what it's like inside the Rat King's head.
Is the Rat King fun to play? The thing about the Rat King is, it's not really so much of a dancing role. Since you have this huge costume with this huge head, I almost consider it a puppetry role. With the 3-foot head, the Rat King is 9 feet tall, and you really have to change your center of focus, so you don't look like just a dancer in a costume. I try to project the huge, kingly side of him, with broad, jeering movements. There's also a comic side to the Rat King. When he dies, he has a long death scene that'll hopefully make people laugh. It's basically his 15 seconds of fame. When the Atlanta Falcons were doing well, he used to do part of the Falcons dance – I think it's called "the Dirty Bird" – but the Falcons haven't been doing that well lately. Sometimes the Rat King does a Michael Jackson dance. Audiences always like the Rat King when he moonwalks.
Do kids in the audience boo or hiss at you? Sometimes in school shows they do. At matinees the children act totally differently, probably because their parents are with them. They're much more quiet. At school shows, you can hear the children react to everything. If you do a popular dance that they recognize, they really go bananas.
Are some roles in The Nutcracker more difficult to dance than others? I get exhausted just listening to the Russian dance. Each role has a different kind of difficulty. The Russian dance is one minute long, so it's a short-sprint kind of run with lots of tricks. A lot can go wrong in a minute. The Nutcracker Prince is probably my favorite of the dances in The Nutcracker, because you get to do a lot with your partner, and it really builds on itself. I don't ever get tired of doing that one.
Apart from the fact that The Nutcracker has a holiday theme, why do you think it's such a tradition? It's a great introduction to the ballet for kids – and for adults. The first and second acts are very different, so they can sit through it, and they can see that there's much more to dance than just positions. I also think it's something that's passed down from generation to generation. I remember seeing it with my mom, and remember things that were so magical. Now I'm grown up, and I'm taking my son and seeing that magic through him.
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