Her Heart Belongs to Daddy, And 'Nutcracker' Does, Too

The Washington Ballet's
The Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" was taped for broadcast later to U.S. troops worldwide. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007

"Hi, Daddy. I miss you. Enjoy the show."

It was an unusual start to "The Nutcracker," a timeworn event to which there is generally nothing unusual attached. But these words from a little girl in a mouse costume, lisped into a microphone to a Marine in Iraq, gave the Washington Ballet's performance Friday at the Warner Theater a truly lovely warmth, and seemed to infuse the whole evening with an intensity of purpose.

This wasn't just a ballet. It was a serviceman's wish come true. Lt. Col. Frank Johnston didn't want to miss his daughter Isabelle's debut, so the Washington Ballet arranged for its opening-night show to be videotaped and broadcast over the Pentagon's airwaves to troops not only in Iraq but around the world. Artistic Director Septime Webre brought the dimpled 7-year-old onstage before the curtain rose to tell her story, and to read a message from Johnston, who wrote that he would be gratefully watching the tape "as a father, but also as a representative for all the other fathers and mothers deployed overseas this Christmas season that will miss many other firsts."

Detected amid the hearty applause that followed this singularly emotional introduction, a sniffle or two. Can you blame us?

The performance Johnston and his uniformed colleagues will see later this week was a true spit-and-polish affair, with Webre's Washington-centric take on the ballet (set in various D.C. locales and peopled with historical figures) given high color by the professional company and a healthy contingent of Washington School of Ballet students. Chief among these were Talia Startsman as Clara, the dreamy young star of the ballet and a dancer who brims with natural charm, and Nayon Iovino, who as the well-mannered nephew to Clara's godfather, Drosselmeyer, partnered Startsman with a confident touch.

Former Virginia governor Mark Warner and Bill Clinton's buddy Vernon Jordan had walk-on roles as party guests at Clara's turn-of-the-century Georgetown manse. No rug-cutting from them -- too bad -- but the rest of the cast contributed to an animated first act. Mako Nagasaki's Miss Liberty, one of Drosselmeyer's dancing dolls, was a special treat: more warrior queen than windup toy, she threw a majestic sweep into her turns, with one tapered leg spearing the air around her shoulder.

A new applause point came when a half-dozen screamingly cute white mice in Pilgrim dress crept onstage holding one another's tails. One bore a yellow ribbon around her hat, and instantly gained hundreds of proud stand-in mamas and papas. It was Isabelle.

The battle scene is where Webre makes his greatest mark in this ballet; amid the cannon fire and smoke and flash pots are brisk and well-managed appearances by Valley Forge Bunnies (Why bunnies? Because they're fuzzy, that's why) and Red Coat Rats, who are also fuzzy and quite a bit creepy. The music sounded especially thin here, though. That rich, full-hearted Tchaikovsky score needs more than the 29 musicians in the Warner's pit to do it justice.

If it's beautiful dancing you're after, rather than fur and effects, the Snow Scene is the highlight, with the Jefferson Memorial in the distance and a full moon hanging over the Potomac. Elizabeth Gaither was just the kind of apparition you'd want to see swirling around on a frosty night, a Snow Queen with fire inside, and an immediately engaging personality. Cooler, and stunningly exacting in a casual, offhand way, her partner Jared Nelson brought a sustained elegance to his turns.

In the second act's energetic variety show under the cherry blossoms, Anacostia Indians Laura Urgellés and Tamás Krizsa deserve special note, Urgellés for so ably knotting herself up like warm taffy, and Krizsa, in his first season with the company, for keeping her so steady that not a wobble crept into her hyper-flexible display.

The Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms is a rather square and rigid affair, though Jade Payette added a sliver of excitement as the gyroscopic Dew Drop. As the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier, Brianne Bland and Jonathan Jordan performed their duties with firmness and resolve. If they didn't quite melt the heart, they set a clean technical standard to which the littlest participants might aspire.

But this performance of "The Nutcracker" was about more than that. The secret to the seemingly eternal appeal of this work is the potency with which it delivers the message that everything is all right. That wholesome happiness and familial harmony are attainable. That kids will continue to fill the stage and create this wonderland night after night, year after year, even in a time of war. That rituals will continue and start anew.

And that a little girl braving her first steps in this ballet will one day see her daddy again. May it be so for Isabelle, and others like her.

Performances continue through Dec. 23.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company