Washington Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’: Lack of orchestra takes some of the magic out


The Washington Ballet's holiday production of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” choreographed by Septime Webre. (Paul Zambrana/Washington Ballet)
Sarah Kaufman
Dance critic December 1, 2012

By the looks — or rather, sound — of things, Clara’s family has fallen on hard times. Maybe her old man lost money on the railways. At any rate, these once-prosperous Washingtonians decided to forgo the live musicians for their annual Christmas fete. You know, the one they call “The Nutcracker.”

The Washington Ballet has had an on-again, off-again relationship with its orchestra in the last few years. Alas, this is one of the off years. So instead of live music, a truly horrendous recording of that beautiful Tchaikovsky score accompanies director Septime Webre’s Washington-themed version of the holiday standby, robbing it of a good deal of its charm.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it. View Archive

The canned sound at the Warner Theatre is an especially villainous mood-killer in the ballet’s first act, which opens in a well-appointed Georgetown mansion of 1882. By all the indications of Peter Horne’s luxuriously detailed set design, only ranking instrumentalists would be expected to entertain those gathered there. Instead, Tchaikovsky's exuberant flutes and majestic crescendos meet a roaring doom inside the speakers and fall heavily on the ears. (The weight of this is directly proportionate to one’s proximity to said speakers. My advice, if you go, is to avoid the close-in side rows.)

The second-act variations, particularly those with the more delicate melodies, don’t hurt quite so bad.

This is an otherwise lively production. The design and conception of it is exceptionally pretty. You are drawn into its Victorian nostalgia by equal measures of rich period costumes and child-friendly fantasy. In fact, its chief pleasure is supplied by the scores of child performers and the dear creatures they play. Young Clara, who guides us through her family’s festivities to a sweet dream of ad­ven­ture, is surrounded by a wealth of warmth and fuzziness.

Where other “Nutcrackers” offer up a few dancing mice, here you get the mice plus two varieties of butterflies, as well as bees, bunnies and a crew of wickedly funny Red Coat Rats (a vaudeville routine unto themselves, as they fumble and bumble with their slain king on a stretcher). The mechanical dancing dolls emerge from a giant Humpty Dumpty on wheels, and Mother Barnum holds forth atop a whirling carousel, out of which spills her brood of fabulously striped, ruffled and polka-dotted little clowns.

This is a show of children and for children. Dozens of Washington School of Ballet students fill its ranks, with professional dancers spotlighted here and there. The snow scene is especially effective, its glacier-blue Snow Flakes darting so swiftly and lightly you could almost forget the metallic tones of their waltz accompaniment.

At Friday’s opening, standout soloists included Chong Sun, a member of the Washington Ballet Studio Company, who caught yards of air in his jumps in the Chinese dance. Aurora Dickie was a Dew Drop with buckets of sparkle.

Still, it is difficult to produce gold in hardship. Maki Onuki’s Sugar Plum Fairy had a steely pleasantness, with Jonathan Jordan as her steadfast Cavalier. But it must be said that neither seemed especially animated from the inside. I can’t blame them. With the orchestra pit sitting empty before them, some of the life was sapped from the ballet before any of these lovely dancers took a step.

The Nutcracker

The Washington Ballet at the Warner Theatre; through Dec. 23 ; tickets $34-$99; call 202-397-7328, or visit washingtonballet.org.

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