A Gilded 'Nutcracker,' Rusty in Spots

Deidre Griffin with other butterflies in the Washington Ballet production.
Deidre Griffin with other butterflies in the Washington Ballet production. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 5, 2005

All the spectacle and cheer you could wish for are stuffed into the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker," where parasol-wielding dancers line up to form a shimmering giant fish in the Chinese Dance, and clown-faced tots tumble forth from a spinning merry-go-round. In Artistic Director Septime Webre's version, which opened Friday at the Warner Theatre, the element of nostalgia that draws families again and again to the Christmas tale is heightened with the ballet's setting in a Georgetown mansion, where Frederick Douglass is among the party guests and the entertainment features a dancing John Paul Jones and a Kachina doll.

Webre's elaborately costumed affair, which premiered last year, gives the ballet a fresh look, and he has injected touches of mischief and humor into the first-act gathering of champagne-downing adults and roguish children. But Webre needs to be as attentive to the details as he is to the big, boisterous picture.

The party scene reflects the choreographer's own high energy and drive, but the children's restlessness, as they play with their antique-themed toys and push and shove each other, frequently upstages the dancing. There is too much visual static around the solo variations, so one's attention was split when Kara Cooper was whirling and snapping into position as the Miss Liberty doll, a difficult role with its mechanical look. The young Clara, whose fevered imagination sets the fantastical second act in motion, had to share the spotlight with rowdy little friends during her lovely dance with her nutcracker doll; Mariana Olaizola's nicely arched feet and self-possessed bearing couldn't compete with the spear-wielding boys around her. (Who would give out spears to kids at a party, anyway?)

White mice, red-coated rats and Valley Forge bunnies populate the battle scene, along with a cannon and lots of swordplay, but there was a curious flatness to the action because of the orchestra's wan output. The Washington Ballet's effort to include live music in many of its productions is laudable, but this attempt was no gift. A good CD would be preferable to the underpowered, at times off-key sound that did no justice to Tchaikovsky. This was most notable in the second half of the ballet, a variety show of ethnic and folk-tale characters performing to those tunes that have become so recognizable through incessant commercials. (One youngster in the audience was heard to exclaim, "That's the IBM music!" when the Sugar Plum Fairy took the stage.)

We all know this music; we've all heard it played well. Surely the ballet company can manage a crisper rendition in the forum in which it was intended to be heard.

Music aside, this ballet is plump with spirited dancing. Elizabeth Gaither and Jared Nelson brought a particular warmth to the their roles as Snow Queen and King, infusing their dancing with feeling despite being dumped on by what seemed to be buckets of confetti -- it fell so heavily, in unnatural spurts, that you could hear it hit the stage. Nelson has gained an appealing sense of calm in his dancing, and has become one of the company's technical standouts. As the Frontiersman -- taking a page from Davey Crockett, in buckskins and raccoon hat -- he dove into no-hands cartwheels as easily as he whipped off pirouettes.

Maki Onuki brought a soaring jubilation to her Dew Drop role, adding a much-needed lift to the Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms, whose members were wilting more than soaring.

The upright strength and precise footwork one is accustomed to seeing from the Washington School of Ballet students, who filled out the casting in much of the production, lapsed from time to time. They could learn from Brianne Bland, whose Sugar Plum Fairy displayed a simple, open style, unembellished and pure. Bland has no air of mystery and does not try to charm the audience, but her reserve focuses attention on the fine polish of her dancing. Jonathan Jordan, who had rocked the stage in Day-Glo body paint and feathers as the first-act Kachina Doll, was her stalwart Cavalier.

Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker," with alternating casts, through Dec. 24 at the Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW. For showtimes (evening and matinee) and ticket information, call 202-397-7328.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company