Organizing Theory & Artistry

Christmas in Washington: Ballet West’s Nutcracker at The Kennedy Center

Our Sugar Plum Fairy ornament "dances" onstage at the Kennedy Center.

We were treated to a double-dose of Nutcracker magic this year. I wrote before about viewing Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker and for our encore, we viewed Ballet West’s version that was brought for a special tour to the Kennedy Center.

Born and raised in Utah, I grew up watching Ballet West’s Nutcracker performances with my grandparents and parents. As a teenager, I auditioned to be part of the children’s cast and was granted a role as a “Lady-in-waiting.” It sounds impressive, except when you know that all the children’s roles are cast by height. Anyone taller than about 5’6” could only be a lady-in-waiting. The dancing in this role is very minimal and if there aren’t enough kids to do it, they often ask the moms! However, it was a wonderful experience dancing this role. We had to attend regular rehearsals in the Ballet West studios under the watchful eye of Bene Arnold. Sometimes we caught glimpses of the professional dancers rehearsing. We got to wear a wonderful costume, learned to apply stage makeup to ourselves and the younger children and had our moment on stage as well as having the privilege of watching from the wings as the professionals danced.

I danced the lady-in-waiting role for two years. During my tenure, there were always conspiracy theories among my fellow ladies-in-waiting that “next year” they would modify the choreography to make it more difficult. One time, someone mentioned this theory to one of the rehearsal assistants who informed us that it would never happen because Ballet West honored the choreography of William Christensen and it would “never” change.

Because I know the Ballet West Nutcracker choreography so well, it is the Nutcracker that I compare all others to. The Christensen choreography is mostly genius. It fits the music very well. It incorporates children perfectly and the solo dances in the second act from the various lands “Arabian,” “Spanish,” etc. are technically challenging for the professional dancers and audience engaging. Mr. Christensen’s background in vaudeville was likely a heavy influence and it is really a time-tested choreography.

So, I went into this performance with high expectations. My parents flew in from Salt Lake to enjoy it with us.

We slid into our high balcony seats. On our same row was a large group of girlfriends who seemed to be having a night out. They were all dressed in black dresses and they always sat down at the last minute. At every intermission their skinny little legs paraded past us to their seats in the middle of the row. It was almost a performance in itself.

My children did quite well during the performance. They only had to be told once not to kick the seat by a friendly but firm patron. They received many compliments on their dresses (modified versions of their Halloween costumes this year) and turned heads. One woman sweetly told me they were “The best dresses EV-er!”

Recycling elements of the Cleopatra look for the Nutcracker.
The Elizabeth dress matched the carpets at the Kennedy Center almost perfectly!

On the plus side, the professional dancers from Ballet West brought their A game. I had no complaints with any of the professional dancing and it was fun to see at least a few of the dancers we had been watching on the show “Breaking Pointe” dance live. We saw Rex Tilton and Allison DeBona dance the Arabian pas de deux. Ronnie Underwood was going to be dancing the lead Russian but was substituted at the last minute with someone else. The Ballet West style is to emphasize the romantic partnership between the male and female dancers and they did that very well.

The children in the cast, however, were a bit of a disappointment. The Clara role was danced very well but many of the rest of the children weren’t quite up to Salt Lake Ballet West standards. Of course, no one expects children to be polished dancers but it was lots of little things that brought the children’s performance down. The party boys never maintained a straight line when they were supposed to. From our view high up in the nosebleed seats, this was kind of a glaring distraction and made the party scene look messy. The “Pages” in the second act when I was dancing were usually the very best child dancers and got the best choreography. For some reason, in this version, the page choreography didn’t really stand out. Instead the “Oriental Servant” dancers seemed to be the standouts (and they did quite well). The “buffoons” underneath “Mother Buffoon’s” skirt were also a little disappointing. The big trick in Ballet West’s Nutcracker is that the lead child buffoon does a series of back handsprings across the stage (to raucous applause). Sadly, the lead buffoon was struggling to finish the tumbling sequence and nearly fell on her head on the last one.

I know the Washington area has really strong children’s dance programs so this uneven performance was really confusing to me. I wonder if there might have been some rehearsal coordination issues somewhere where the children were either not used to the Kennedy Center stage or working with the Ballet West team. It looked like each performance had a completely different cast of children to work with. This allows the most number of children to participate, but I wonder if it might have worked better to have just one children’s cast for all of the Washington performances.

The Ballet West blog notes that there were a few “bumps in the road” during the Kennedy Center run and I wonder if I might have seen an off night.

The really odd thing to me, however, was that William Christensen’s choreography, the choreography that “never” would be changed, was changed! The opening scenes where all the party guests arrive seemed shortened somehow and there were fewer children in these scenes. The Spanish routine, usually danced by three women was danced by two women and a man. The Mother Buffoon was transformed from one man in drag twirling around in a huge ballooning dress to a wooden float-like skirt vehicle with one man as the top and one man as the feet. Most disappointing, the Russian routine, which is all men and the most technically challenging Russian choreography I have seen (jumps way high in the air, lines of squat-kicks, one dancer vaulting a high leapfrog over the others, etc.), seemed to have been modified to something a little easier and less impressive. (However, if you look at these pictures from the Ballet West blog, it looks like the rigor was supposed to be there.)

In the Washington Post review, it acknowledged that Adam Sklute had modified some of the choreography to “restore” William Christensen’s original vision that had been edited out over the years. It may be. It may be also that my memory is failing me as to what I remember from my youth, but it just didn’t feel like the same Nutcracker I knew.

To someone without my history, I’m sure it was a fine performance and many of my criticisms probably went unnoticed. The Post review was quite glowing and deservedly so. With more exposure to it, I am sure I could grow to love this new version as much as the original.

It’s always hard to watch something colored by the memories of childhood change but in the end it’s usually a healthy process. There is probably a lady-in-waiting who will look back on this version as her all-time favorite and that’s a good thing too.

The best part of the performance? Sharing the memory with visiting grandparents.