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A 'Nutcracker' That's Made to Order

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 13, 2004; Page C01

The Washington Ballet has turned "The Nutcracker" into an A-list party on the Potomac, proving that it's not just the Germans and the Russians who know how to frolic in the middle of winter. In his wonderfully appealing, high-spirited new production of the ballet, which premiered Friday at the Warner Theatre, Artistic Director Septime Webre places Clara and her family amid the Georgetown gentry in 1882, hosting a Christmas Eve affair that would be the hit of any social circuit then or now.

In the half-century since the ballet became a holiday phenomenon in this country, "The Nutcracker" has been adapted in countless ways. But Webre's idea of a Washington setting, rather than the traditional Old World scenario, is a remarkably good fit. The story is unchanged, with Clara's gift of a nutcracker doll prompting her to dream that it becomes a prince who leads her to a magical kingdom of the imagination. But Webre has cleverly peppered the characters and decor with Washingtonisms and bits of Americana that lend the ballet unusual color and texture.

Joshua Starr as the Nutcracker Prince and Mariana Olaizola as Clara in dress rehearsal for the Washington Ballet's first new "Nutcracker" in 40 years. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

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The production crackles with excited energy. After all, this is the company's first new production of "The Nutcracker" since the Kennedy White House, and while company founder Mary Day's version has been fondly regarded ever since, the troupe had outgrown its more modest dimensions. One of the chief pleasures of the new ballet is the proprietary enthusiasm with which it is danced, from the top rank of the professionals down to the littlest Washington School of Ballet student.

One of those students is Mariana Olaizola, who on opening night danced the role of Clara with poise and charm. Webre establishes Clara as the heart of the ballet during the overture, in a sweet scene set in Clara's bedroom. Here, her parents give her a new dress for the upcoming party, and as the delighted girl stands in front of her mirror admiring herself in the frock, it is not her reflection but the Sugar Plum Fairy who smiles back at her -- a lovely foreshadowing of the ballerina Clara will see in her dream later on, as a vision of the woman she wishes to be.

But first, there is the party, where Merchant and Ivory meet the Addams Family. From the looks of it, a good chunk of the ballet's million-dollar price tag went into the period gowns, cascades of deep-toned satin with soft bustles in the back. The costumes, designed by Judanna Lynn, are luscious here -- particularly the little girls' pastel ruffles -- and make for a rich picture against set designer Peter Horne's deep red walls and elegant furnishings. The exception is the white fright wig for Frederick Douglass -- yes, the abolitionist and D.C. resident, who is among the guests (despite the fact that 1882 happened to be the year his first wife died, which by many accounts plunged him into a depression). High-powered lawyer Vernon Jordan gamely stepped into the role on opening night, compensating in stature and celebrity for a really bad hair day.

Bustles and waistcoats aside, there's nothing overly formal about the festivities. When Clara's mischievous little brother Fritz (Timothee Courouble) hurtles onstage, he does so with such startling little-boy force that you fear he's going to break something. Of course, he does -- his later mauling of Clara's nutcracker is the fateful moment that lodges the doll ever more firmly in her emotions. In Fritz's wild entrance, that moment is presaged in a natural and authentic way.

There are plenty of servants bustling about the mansion, lighting chandeliers and such. One is on hand as Fritz frightens his sister with a dead rat and then tosses it overhead; the butler catches it neatly in a silver chafing dish and whisks it away. There are many other wry moments -- some involving mistletoe -- but to note them all would take several viewings. What is unmistakable is the genuine-seeming good cheer, crisply organized and musically timed to boot. (Scott Speck conducted the Tchaikovsky score.) One of the loveliest and most inspired musical moments is the transformation of the courtly quadrille into a cross between a square dance and a reel. Among the other American touches Webre has inserted into this act is a dancing kachina doll come to life.

The battle scene represents Webre's greatest choreographic achievement, with the toy soldiers in snappy formations, accompanied by Valley Forge Bunnies, a cute rag-tag trio of musicians. There's also an American Cavalry -- you can't have too many reinforcements -- facing off against Red Coat Rats. This being Clara's dream, anachronisms are plenty: The Mouse King sweeps on in wearing a George III cape, while the Nutcracker has come to life as George Washington. It's all very busy, bright and lively, punctuated with cannon fire.

After this melee, the Snow Scene was particularly effective, a cool frost-blue view of the Potomac and the Jefferson Memorial (another anachronism), though the Snow Flakes, in long, filmy blue gowns, looked more like water nymphs than wind-borne frost.

While Webre possessed a clear idea of look and feel for the first act, in the second act his concept is more scattershot, and this half is somewhat less successful. Where the stage seemed spacious, now it feels cramped. Part of the reason is the set. Thickly overhanging cherry blossoms crowd the waterfront where a paddleboat deposits Clara and her Nutcracker Prince (Joshua Starr) among a host of woodland creatures -- no candy characters here, except for the Sugar Plum Fairy, whose status as the lone bonbon is not explained.

There are some misfires among the costumes. After the glories of the first act, the Butterflies that gathered around the Sugar Plum Fairy have a school-recital quality, and there was nothing terribly birdlike about the wide, weighty scarlet tutus for the flock of Cardinals. The towering Mother Barnum and her Clowns were a big hit, however; the giant woman (Luis Torres, prevented from dancing more demanding roles by an injured hip) sits atop a carousel, and her candy-colored brood tumbles out from between the painted horses.

The most successful costume effect, though, arose in the Chinese Dance, inspired by Chinatown's New Year's Day parade, complete with an impressive snaking fish and spinning parasols. A pair of banner-twirling dancers borrowed from the late choreographer Choo-San Goh's delicately etched steps that were always a highlight of the Mary Day production.

The dancing is of the polished, clean quality that is a company hallmark. Michelle Jimenez and Runqiao Du were a gracious Sugar Plum and Cavalier. Laura Urgelles and Alvaro Palau were a seductive pair of Anacostia Indians (in place of the customary Arabian Coffee). Jonathan Jordan was the cast's standout technician as the Snow King, partnering the bright young apprentice Maki Onuki, and as the high-flying Frontiersman leading a kicky harem of raccoon-capped Frontier Girls. In the first act, John Goding was a terrifically animated Godfather Drosselmeyer.

While the new production has room to grow, it is bound to be a commercial success. It burnishes and redecorates the beloved traditional, while making no radical departures from what audiences rely on "The Nutcracker" to deliver. With Webre's production, Washington has a "Nutcracker" with a stamp of its own, and December has just gotten a good deal more interesting.

Performances continue through Dec. 26, with cast changes.

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