Lavish or plain, with live music or canned, The Nutcracker is a ballet for and about kids. These were my thoughts as I sat in the seasonally decorated Warner Theatre last Friday evening watching the opening performance by the Washington Ballet, the first of the season, which runs through December 23rd.
With so many traditional productions around, you might think that setting your company apart from the crowd would be one tough “Nut” to crack. But leave it to the Washington Ballet’s Artistic Director, Septime Webre, to come up with a different take.
Set in Georgetown in 1882, his original rendition introduces George Washington as the Nutcracker (hero) and King George III as the Rat King (villain), plus legions of tiny tots who keep popping up in both acts of the ballet that boasts a cast of 462!
Act I opens with a tribute to Frederick Douglass and salutes to both the north and south Civil War veterans. The second act takes place on the banks of the Potomac with cherry blossoms in full bloom and characters reflecting American history.
Although I have seen glossier performances and more elaborate productions, the charm, spirit, and genuine warmth of Webre’s The Nutcracker is a feather in his cap as director, a showcase for the dancers, and a coup for his talent as choreographer.
Webre bounded onto the stage just minutes before the curtain was raised to welcome the multi-generational audience. “How many are newbies?” he asked, and dozens of hands were raised before he could utter “Nutcracker Suite.” The crowd was encouraged to yell “bravo,” “brava,” and “bravi” for the appropriate renditions by the male dancers, the ballerinas, and the entire company. Then he dashed off for final touches on a production that has become a holiday tradition in just eight years.
The kids ignored his instructions and hooted and hollered their approval throughout the ballet. The dancers on stage appeared thrilled with the audience enthusiasm, especially Brooklyn Mack who flashed a broad smile after his signature no-hands flip in the air as a frontiersman from the wild land of Virginia.
Indeed “Nuts,” as it is familiarly called in the dance world, has introduced many generations of young children to the fantasy world of ballet. And who doesn’t enjoy watching a parlor Christmas tree that grows to the ceiling or seeing all those goofy mice dance into battle with equally silly soldiers?
Parents and grandparents cheered for the Anacostia Indians, especially the sensuous duet with Sona Kharatian and Tamas Krizsa in what is traditionally known as the Arabian variation. But nothing topped the colorful Mother Ginger second act scene with a merry-go-round, complete with painted horses and the most adorable youngsters tumbling and tossing their bodies all over the stage.
The ballet sets and costumes are glorious, designed by Peter Horne and Judanna Lynn. The lighting by Tony Tucci kept the focus on the company dancers as well as students from the Washington School of Ballet. Young Albert Gordon is a star-in-the-making as the Nutcracker Prince who guides Clara (Lily Casscells in pointe shoes) to a land filled with flowers and fauna, on the banks of the Potomac where steamboats float by.
Maki Onuki, now a certified star in the Washington Ballet Company, danced the coveted role of the Sugar Plum Fairy with Jonathan Jordan as her cavalier. Small glitches in the daring fish dive diminished their Pas de Deux ever so slightly. Other standouts include Emily Ellis as the sparkling Snow Queen in the season opener. With snow falling from the rafters, cherry blossoms hanging in lusters, and side stages filled with adorable characters.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, including a 20 minute intermission.
The Washington Ballet performs Septime Webre’s The Nutcracker through December 23, 2012 at the Warner Theatre – 513 13th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call (202) 397-732, or purchase them online.