The Nutcracker The Washington Ballet At the Warner Theatre through Dec. 26 A Beltway-strapped take on the Christmas classic

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is its distinguishing attitude, emphasized in the ballet’s sets (a Georgetown mansion and cherry blossom orchard), historical references, and cameos ranging from members of Congress to Fox News reporters.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.

Our Readers Say

*principal* characters, Mike...
What a good article by Mike Paarlburg about the plight of local, professional musicians being cut from the Washington Ballet Company's Nutcracker performance. Nice to see support for the musicians! Different from a recent article in the Washington Post by Sarah Kaufman that praises the production and merely says the CD used at the Warner Theater isn't very good.

Not published in the Washington Post is my response to Ms. Kaufman's article I would like to share with you. I think there are some salient points the public, but mostly the Washington Ballet Company need to ponder:

Shame on Sarah Kaufman! (Washington Post, Dec. 5, 2010, A Spectacular 'Nutcracker' from the Washington Ballet) "The one thing ballet companies never mess with is Tschaikovsky's music". Just what does she think the Washington Ballet Company has done? Tschaikovsky composed ballets for dancers and musicians. Ballet requires that collaborative effort of artists to sustain the integrity of the art form, and that which the composer intended. One would expect visitors and locals in the Nations Capital to be able to experience "the nation-wide Nutcracker roll-out, the great American Christmas party" by experiencing all of the splendor of the sights and sounds associated with the holiday season.

Is there no pride in the premier Washington Ballet Company of the Nations Capital ? Is there no sense of leadership, authenticity, and tradition for the great American Christmas party in the Nations Capital? The Washington Ballet Company has missed a perfect opportunity to support its art and lead the nation in its party. Even arts groups can lead by example and a Nutcracker performance in the Nations Capital should not only be a "spectacular eyeful", but a spectacular earful !

Financial reasons (a sign of the times) are sighted for cutting live musicians from the Washington Ballet Company's production of the Nutcracker. My understanding is that the dancers pay was cut and the professional orchestra agreed to lower their salaries appreciably----what did the Washington Ballet compromise?

Part of the "magic" of a Nutcracker performance is hearing the orchestra warming up in the pit, being able to peer into the pit to see the musicians, then experiencing the hush while the orchestra plays the overture, the curtain rises, and the dancers appear in step to the music, making the experience of going to the ballet come alive. The Washington Ballet Company needs to support live musicians for their performances and not mess with Tschaikovsky's music or intent.

Olivia W. Gutoff
Life Member, Metropolitan Washington
D.C. Federation of Musicians, Local 161-710
4801 Constitution
Williamsburg, VA 23188

Recently attending this, I was unimpressed. The music was lacking the feel of a live orchestra - and I was greatly disappointed in the WBC for failing to do Tchaikovsky justice. Further, I agree with the above comment: eliminating the orchestra risks the future of the arts as a whole.

Worse, the setting made me cringe. While it's perfectly geared toward Georgetown schoolgirls going to ballet class, setting the Nutcracker there made as much sense as placing Swan Lake on Lake Titicaca.

Worse, the Arabian dance wasn't (it seemed the intent there was solely to titillate), and the stage felt cluttered with too much movement and the choreography was insipid and lacklustre. The dancers were clearly world class but weren't given opportunity to do their best.
I was so disappointed and frankly, astonished, that the orchestra was cut from this production. I took my husband to his first Nutcracker and could not believe that the music was piped in! This is DC?!? We are supposed to have a wonderful classical music environment. I will have to switch to the Kennedy Center next year.
I was in Washington DC from the UK, and took the opportunity to catch a performance of the Nutcracker by the Washington Ballet. I am a fan of Tchaikovsky, and was disappointed to find a performance of this classic going on without a live orchestra to express this wonderful music. I had expected more in a prestigious city like Washington DC. I cannot imagine this happening in London. I agree with reviews of the performance from the point of view of using a cobbled together recording to back the excellence and artisitic endeavour of the dancers, and in such an imaginative production of the classic (even though the Mouse King's army were British Redcoats!). I saw a production in San Francisco a couple of years ago which set the action in that city, and very much enjoyed it. Of course, there was a wonderful orchestra on hand. Please bring the orchestra back next year.
I put out 100 bucks each for 3 nice seats. We rarely get to spend money on the arts and splurged on the experience for our son. I'm very disappointed that half of the show, in my view -- THE MUSIC -- is a recording. I would have put the $$ elsewhere had I known.

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