Organizing Theory & Artistry

Christmas in Washington: Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker

Christmas decorations in downtown Washington

It has been a busy first half of December for us.  For the past week, we have been fortunate to be celebrating an early Christmas with my parents.  We have seen so much in Washington and I thought it would be fun to share some of those events with you and give you a slice of life as to how Christmas is celebrated in the capital city.

Christmas preparations are in full swing.  On December 1, as I drove my daughters to their ballet lessons this morning, neighbors were out decorating the entrance to our development.  That afternoon, on our way to Washington to view Washington Ballet’s The Nutcracker, we passed numerous cars on I-95 with trees strapped to their roofs.

I-95: the Christmas tree corridor?

Attending The Nutcracker is one of our holiday traditions and this year we will be seeing two different versions (more on that later).  We had never seen Washington Ballet’s version before but I have heard so many good things about it.  I love Washington Ballet’s YouTube channel and the creative vision of its director Septime Weber, so this year we purchased their ticket package for family friendly ballets.  The first one is The Nutcracker.

The performance was held at the Warner Theater in downtown Washington.  It is a charming theatre with lots of gold details and chandeliers, elegant carpeting and plush seats.  I always purchase the cheap seats when my children attend with me since I never know if we will have to leave the performance early.  Our tickets ended up being quite good, though, close to the stage on the main floor but off to one side.

Inside Warner Theater for The Nutcracker.

As the performance began, the Artistic Director, Septime Weber, came out to address the crowd.  The audience was approximately 60% young children dressed up nicely and attending with their parents or grandparents.  The cuteness factor was overwhelming!

Mr. Weber asked the children to raise their hands it they were attending a ballet performance for the first time and then gave them a short lecture that they should not talk during a ballet performance and that they should sit up straight.  He then humorously pointed at a young boy on the front row and told him to work his abdominal muscles.  We were then told that if a male dancer is doing a wonderful job, you should shout “Bravo!”  If a female dancer is doing a wonderful job, shout “Brava!” and if the whole company is doing very well, shout “Bravi!” (pronounced Bra-vee!).

Every ballet company gives a distinctive twist to their Nutcracker.  Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker is distinctive for making its Nutcracker into George Washington and having a second act set that features the Jefferson Memorial during cherry blossom season.  There are also some unique children’s characters in the ballet, including some super-charming mushrooms.  Many of the costumes are clever and have a unique artistic style to them.  The mice, for example are a bit roly-poly and look like a well-executed children’s book illustration.

What I was most interested to see was how the Washington Ballet dancers held up in terms of skill and talent.  In this regard, I was blown away!  While my survey of Washington area professional ballet companies is limited, Washington Ballet is my current favorite!  The male dancers are superb and the females are excellent (as expected) but are also chosen for their unique expressive styles.  The Sugar Plum Fairy, for example, was  Maki Onuki and I have never seen a ballet dancer quite like her.  She has almost no musculature to her super-skinny legs and she executes her turns so tightly.  During a portion of the choreography where she would execute several steps and then pause for a few seconds holding an arabesque was breath-taking.  She seems like a real life dancing porcelain doll and I loved her in this role since it deepened the fairy tale quality to the role.

For our performance, the Russian male dancer was Brooklyn Mack and he is an unbelievable talent, jumping so high in the air and turning so fast and furious.  He effortlessly tossed off an aerial cartwheel as well.  Outside the theater, there is a sort of “walk of fame” with various celebrity names and handprints.  Right before the entrance is the signature of the great dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov.  As I entered, I wondered if any Washington Ballet dancer would compare and Brooklyn Mack did very well in this regard.

Mikhail Baryshnikov's name etched in cement outside the theater.

Septime Weber’s choreography is a lovely blend of tradition and modernism.  His style seems to require more athleticism than most.  The snowflakes in the corps in the first act were really working to execute his quick footwork.  Every once in a while, Weber tosses in a modern-style fluid movement as an accent.  He also puts in a bit of humor.  For example, when the husband presents his wife with a large pearl necklace for her Christmas present and she expresses her delight, the husband turns to the crowd and winks as they head upstairs to bed.

You can see a brief excerpt of the Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker in the video below.  It is definitely worth seeing in person!


 

The Post gave it a so-so review, complaining about the use of recorded music, a budget reality for many ballet companies.  Yes, it would have been better with live music but overall, the music wasn’t that much of a distraction.

My daughters always seem to enjoy the party scene in the first act the best.  I think they like it best when there are the most children on the stage.  They started to tire during the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier solos and it reminded me of how I used to feel when I was a child.  Overall, they did very well, however, and especially enjoyed the popcorn and cotton candy available at intermission.  There were a variety of generic Nutcrackers for sale at intermission.  We managed to resist buying but if they had the George Washington version featured in the production it might have been a different story.

Popcorn and pink cotton candy were the intermission snacks.

It was a wonderful start to our month of holiday celebrations.