Ballet West’s ‘The Nutcracker’ at The Kennedy Center

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Ballet West blends old & new in holiday classic

Remember the way the holiday season used to make you feel? Remember walking around full of expectation, certain that wonderful, impossible, magical things were about to happen? If you haven’t felt that way for a couple of years – or maybe a couple of decades – perhaps it’s time to see a live production of The Nutcracker…again. In these troubled times, we all could use a hug, some warm and fuzzy entertainment, and a good old-fashioned version of the Christmas ballet.

Christiana Bennett and Chrisopher Ruud. Photo by
Christiana Bennett and Chrisopher Ruud. Photo by Luke Isley.

Ballet West’s traditional rendition of The Nutcracker, at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through the weekend, captures those memorable Christmas customs – like a visit from Santa, the first sip of eggnog, or the last bite of grandma’s cookies

The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition some families simply can’t do without. That’s why, in spite of countless revivals every year, folks still flock to the show. And gather they did, to the opening performance of The Nutcracker, part of You’re home for the Holidays at the Kennedy Center series. The Utah-based company offered a seasonal reawakening of America’s unique theatrical dance tradition.

Nuts (as it is familiarly called) is a child’s entrance into the fantasy world of dance. The magic of Dr. Drosselmeyer (tall, lanky Adrian Fry) whirls a huge cape and performs pyrotechnics; a huge tree that grows even bigger; falling snow during the dance of the Snow Queen (Christiana Bennett), her Cavalier (Beau Pearson), and funny mice in puffy costumes by that battle with equally funny soldiers, all enchanting.

The fairytale comes to life through the eyes of any child experiencing its magic for the first time. For the adults, though, last night’s show was all about the dancers’ bravura and theatrical presentation – especially in the second act – high kicking Russians, flashy stuff, and the familiar Grand Pas de Deux (danced by striking brunette, with partner Christopher Ruud) that keep folks coming back year after year.

Choreographed by Willam F. Christensen in 1944, it became America’s first full-length Nutcracker. According to a petite histoire by a noted critic, George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova (his schoolmate from Saint Petersburg) demonstrated original ballet steps from the original 1892 Nutcracker in Russia. Christensen later embellished the ballet with humor and vaudevillian tricks, some still evident in the current touring production.

Adam Sklute, Ballet West’s Artistic Director, apparently has an appreciation for ballet history, with some of the original choreography, especially the beautiful “Waltz of the Flowers,” led by lead ballerina Emily Adams who showed a lot of chemistry with her partner, Rex Tilton.

Love Ballet West’s fabulous costumes (by David Heuvel who created those puffy mice outfits and sparkling tutus). The lighting by Nicholas Cavallaro contributed to to the magic of this production. The Set by Ariel Baliif captured Victorian Europe, especially the festive home of Herr and Frau Stahlbaum

Ballet West employs tall, edgy dancers, some look familiar, perhaps, from TV’s reality series, Breaking Pointe. The kids from local dance schools are adorable, though not always together – one little tyke stole the show with her sassy exit off stage. Corps ballerinas danced with gusto and smiles, first as snowflakes in the first act, then as flowers .

Not so impressive was the blast of a cannon during the battle between The Mouse King and the Nutcracker prince. There are also some quirky additions in the first act like the bear character dancing Gangnam Style.

Artists of Ballet West in 'The Nutcracker,' Photo by Luke Isley.
Artists of Ballet West in ‘The Nutcracker,’ Photo by Luke Isley.

For me, and I suspect for many of the serious balletomanes (and perhaps the children as it was pin-drop quiet in the audience), the musical overture was most memorable. To my recollection of Nutcrackers – and I have seen a lot in the past four decades of writing about dance – this was one the finest musical renditions by The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, under the baton of Jared Oaks. The tinkling Tchaikovsky score lingered long past the curtain.

Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission.

Ballet West: The Nutcracker plays through December 14, 2014 in The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or (800) 444-1324, or purchase them online.