Of the various Nutcracker productions around town, only one had Kojo Nnamdi in a ridiculous wig on opening night. Americana is the theme of The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker, but Beltway insider is its distinguishing attitude, emphasized in the ballet’s sets (a Georgetown mansion and cherry blossom orchard), historical references, and cameos ranging from members of Congress to Fox News reporters.
Everything about artistic director Septime Webre’s production has the whiff of an overt campaign to brand itself an essential Washington holiday tradition. And it’s convincing. Webre’s Nutcracker is a demonstration of not just exceptional performance and dazzling costumes, but deep community roots in its diverse and locally drawn cast. So it’s unfortunate that financial problems overshadow the company just as Webre’s vision continues to find purchase with D.C. audiences.
The orchestra’s absence was noticeable Friday. The piped-in music sounded, well, piped in; coming from speakers above rather than an orchestra pit below, Tchaikovsky’s score felt disconnected from the action on stage. There were a couple abrupt finishes—Clara’s springtime dance with the Prince—for which the dancers were half a beat off.
It was an unfortunate shortcoming made more apparent by the exceptional production quality of the rest of the show. The set design eschewed realism for the two-dimensional look of a pop-up book. Costumes for principle characters were understated, in airy whites and pastels, contrasting with the second act’s colorful parade of Spanish, Chinese, and Native American dancers, whose stereotypical get-ups ranged from whimsical to borderline offensive. Webre replaced Russians with coonskin-clad settlers and Anacostian Indians, both staying true to the quaint exoticism of the original and reflecting a fascination with the frontier appropriate to his ballet’s 1882 setting. But he got the most mileage out of the kids—200 of them from the Washington Ballet’s partnership with D.C. Public Schools and Ward 8’s THEARC arts center—done up as bumblebees, flowers, and the like for maximum cuteness.
The dancing was superb. Maki Onuki’s Sugar Plum Fairy anchored the production, churning through numbers with deft precision. It was two dancers in relatively minor roles, however, that provoked the biggest responses: Brooklyn Mack as the Springtime Frontiersman, and Andile Ndlovu, a Washington Ballet apprentice from South Africa, as the John Paul Jones doll, both of whose acrobatics were astounding.
For a ballet that aspires and deserves to be more than a regional dance company, its flagship production wears its localized focus proudly, confident that the raw talent on display is evidence enough of its upward mobility. The great strides the ballet has made under Webre are sufficiently impressive for audiences to hope that budget cuts don’t put this upward mobility at risk.