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16.12.08

Washington Ballet "Nutcracker"

Miss Ionarts wants to be a ballerina, so it seemed a good time to take her to see her first performance of Tchaikovsky's evergreen Christmas ballet The Nutcracker. Given the choice this weekend between the more traditional Victorian extravaganza version offered by the Joffrey Ballet at the Kennedy Center and the Washington Ballet's revival of Septime Webre's reimagining of The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater, we chose the latter for our Saturday night outing. Not one to be cowed by the elitist associations of fancy dress for this sort of cultural event, as you can see in the image at left, Miss Ionarts chose to attend in fur coat and tiara.

Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet, gave the company a huge hit by re-envisioning the story, a short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann (Nussknacker und Mausekönig) revised by Alexandre Dumas père as L'histoire d'un casse-noisette, in Washington, D.C. Many other choreographers have updated the story, but Webre's staging takes the cake, because of the extravagantly colorful and dynamic sets (designed by Peter Horne) and Washington-specific costumes (Judanna Lynn) and other details. As set in Washington in 1882, Clara's family lives in a well-appointed mansion in Georgetown, and their Christmas Eve party is attended by Frederick Douglass and other guests. Drosselmeyer's spring-activated toys become the pair of John Paul Jones and Miss Liberty (instead of Harlequin and Colombine), followed by a rather menacing Hopi kachina doll (instead of the soldier).


Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson were the Snow Queen and King in the Washington Ballet's The Nutcracker (photo by Carol Pratt)
When Clara falls asleep by the Christmas tree, she sees rats, of course, instead of mice, and the Rat King looks like King George III (and Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin make a cameo appearance). The king and his redcoats battle the Nutcracker, who looks like George Washington, and toy soldiers as the American revolutionary army. Instead of the Land of Sweets in Act II, Clara and her prince are transported to the Land of Springtime, with cherry blossoms at peak by the Tidal Basin, coloring the sky pink. The Springtime Sugar Plum Fairy is attended by butterflies, mushrooms, bees, and charming animals with funny head masks. She entertains Clara and her prince with Spanish and Chinese dancers, as well as a sultry pair of Anacostia Indians (for the Arab dance), an acrobatic frontiersman (the legendary Davy Crockett, for the Russian dance), bright red cardinals and a tom cat (for the Mirlitons), Mother Barnum and circus clowns (for Mère Gigogne and the polichinelles), and cherry blossoms for the flowers. The only detail he missed was to have worried Washingtonians buying up milk, bread, and toilet paper in the snow scene.

It is visually quite different than the more traditional Nutcracker, like that of the Joffrey Ballet, but it is no less lavish or full of movement and interest. The cast is enormous, with much of the action being carried by children from the Washington School of Ballet drawn from around the area. Four lucky and hard-working young women were cast as Clara in the production, and you may remember that last year's production featured the first appearance of a little girl whose father was a Marine lieutenant colonel in Iraq, for whom the opening night performance was recorded for the Pentagon to broadcast to U.S. troops abroad, so that her dad could watch it. In fact, this Nutcracker became a victim of its own popularity two years ago, when the dancers decided to strike in December 2005, with the intention of scuttling the company's most profitable production. It certainly worked, and a deal was struck.


Dance of the Snowflakes in Washington Ballet's The Nutcracker (photo by Carol Pratt)
For all of my jaded cynicism about the endless performances of these holiday favorites, it is a different experience altogether to take a child to one of these chestnuts, someone is seeing it all for the first time. As with Master Ionarts last year at Washington National Opera's Hansel and Gretel, Miss Ionarts was transfixed in an apoplexy of rapture throughout this two-hour performance. My fears that she might get cranky or fall asleep were totally unfounded, because she sat up and took in every detail. The most memorable parts of the production, of course, are those danced by the members of the company, and as an aspiring dancer, she was most taken by the vision of real ballerinas more than the children: the Sugar Plum Fairy of Rui Huang, the graceful snowflakes, the pert cardinals, and the elegant cherry blossoms, even the athletic leaps of Jonathan Jordan's frontiersman. The only unpolished part was in some of the sounds coming from the orchestra pit: although associate conductor Emil de Cou had a capable hand at the podium, the violins were especially ununified, at times shockingly so. Hopefully, by the end of the run, some of those players will have actually learned their parts. One thing is clear: you can likely expect many more reviews of ballet in these pages in the future.

The Washington Ballet's production of The Nutcracker continues at the Warner Theater through December 28.

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