Nutcracker Smackdown! Washington Ballet vs. Momentum Dance Theatre
Every December, Arts Desk provides readers with a consumer report on a different holiday tradition which those in the Christmas spirit are obligated to attend whether they like it or not. This year we look at the great ballet Tchaikovsky composed to keep American dance companies afloat, The Nutcracker. We compare two D.C. staples, the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker and Momentum Dance Theatre’s Jazz Hip Hop Nutcracker.
Production: Jazz Hip Hop Nutcracker is a charmingly low-budget affair. There’s plenty of dancing but no set, invisible props, and costumes that defy any semblance of logic (if I had to guess, one theme is karate rave wear). The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker is its annual pull-out-all-stops showcase of choreographer Septime Webre’s delirious revision of the Revolutionary War, kind of a drunk history episode in which George Washington fights King George III commanding a Redcoat army of giant rats. If this sounds nightmare-inducing, it should be, but somehow with the pretty scenery and costumes, it manages to be delightful. Point: Washington Ballet
Dancing: This shouldn’t be a contest, given the roster of D.C.’s gold standard dance company. And this talent is spread throughout the deep bullpen the Washington Ballet has assembled to carry it through its 26-show run, which means you may catch some standout performances (e.g. Chong Sun as the Frontiersman in last Friday’s show) and miss others, depending on the night you attend. Momentum’s dancers also have moves, and are more varied in style; their centerpiece is a breakdancing Nassir Ali as “Tha’ Nutcracker.” Contrary to the company's name, however, there’s a lot of dancing that is neither jazz nor hip-hop, including an unfortunately chosen electric slide sequence. Point: Washington Ballet
Music: This shouldn’t be a contest either, but given that the Washington Ballet’s musicians have been laid off since 2009 (except one season when they were brought back for the Ballet’s 50th anniversary, then let go again), both productions feature recorded music, and all the awkwardness that entails. But the contrast between the otherwise lavish production and tinny music is more apparent for the Washington Ballet, where what sounds like Tchaikovsky played through a wet towel wafts over from side speakers rather than an orchestra pit, and dancers are forced to rush their steps and pause for the next track. Momentum, on the other hand, eschews authenticity altogether and opts for a more fun soundtrack of Ellington, Fitzgerald, MJ, The Wanted, and Psy. Because you know Tchaikovsky would have stuck in a horsey dance had he thought of it at the time. Point: Momentum
Cute Kids: The Washington Ballet wins in terms of sheer quantity, with somewhere around 100 children prancing, or at least waddling, about the stage as snow angels, mushrooms, cherry blossoms, etc. It’s a wise financial strategy, as every one of those anthropomorphic fungi have mommies and daddies, aunts and uncles, grandmas and grandpas, which guarantee a multiplier effect on ticket sales. But the avalanche of kids overwhelms many dance numbers, making them less feats of acrobatic skill and more endless munchkin parades. A musical with spoken dialogue, Jazz Hip Hop Nutcracker gives its two child stars a weightier, dramatic role, delivering such lines as “I want to have fun but the people are soooo annoying!” Point: Momentum
The True Spirit of Christmas: Aside from a few coffee mugs, Momentum doesn’t have much to sell (other than, you know, dancing). But the Washington Ballet’s “Sugar Plum” gift shop is untouchable. Want Russian nesting dolls ($65)? A special edition George Washington nutcracker ($60)? You could load up on toys for the kids and skip the performance altogether. And given the cost of those dance lessons they’ll be bugging you for after seeing it ($765/year, Washington School of Ballet), that might be a wise financial strategy on your part. Final Point and Winner: Washington Ballet
Much as we root for the underdog, we can’t deny the Washington Ballet sets the bar locally in terms of artistry and professionalism, if not quite historical accuracy. Momentum’s Jazz Hip Hop Nutcracker is appealing in its own funkier, econo way. And there are, of course, plenty more area Nutcrackers to choose from, many of which either we could not review, or who declined to be reviewed. “Not sure the idea of a humorous review is the best match for our performance” said the Moscow Ballet’s director of public relations. In Russia, Nutcrackers are serious business, folks.
The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker continues through Dec. 29 at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. $35-$175. Momentum Dance Theatre’s Jazz Hip Hop Nutcracker continues December 21 and 22 at Publick Playhouse, 5445 Landover Rd., Cheverly. $25 adults/$19 10-18 and 65 and older/$15 under 10.