Washington Ballet performs Christmas classic 'The Nutcracker' at Warner Theatre

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

Septime Webre's "Nutcracker" may not appeal to purists, but if you relish a party scene that truly parties, a battle scene swirling in smoke, cannon fire and a regiment of soldiers who borrow some high-stepping precision dancing from the Rockettes, as well as a second act full of acrobatic one-upsmanship, this is the "Nutcracker" for you. (And for me.)

The brazenly fresh approach that juices this production, which the Washington Ballet is performing at the Warner Theatre, doesn't stop with placing the traditional German tale in a Georgetown setting with Frederick Douglass on the guest list. The theme that runs through the Edith Wharton-era costuming, decor and cast of characters is vintage Americana, from the Nutcracker Prince's resemblance to George Washington to vestiges of the American West: a dancing kachina doll and a Daniel Boone-ish frontiersman.

But just as important, there's a different feel to this "Nutcracker," one of showmanship and neovaudevillian razzle-dazzle, which is Webre's specialty and his gift. To wit: A kid slings a dead rat across the parlor and the butler traps it in a chafing dish. The kachina doll wears a platter-size headdress that creates a dazzling, whip-whopping weathervane effect when he turns. The cavalry buck and canter on nearly life-size ersatz horses as they charge the Red Coat Rats. And later, a corps of cardinals, dripping scarlet feathers, prances around like Ziegfeld beauties, while in the background an oversize tomcat courts the birds' queen like a hound dog.

Through it all, we're told the familiar story of young Clara and her parents' Christmas Eve party (though it's rowdier than in most accounts), the wooden nutcracker she receives from her godfather, and the dream of a fantasy land that the doll inspires. But Webre adds plenty of elements of his own devising. One especially nice touch is the ragged soldier stooped outside the gates to Clara's mansion at the start of the ballet; as the guests parade in, one stops to give him a food basket. The scene is over in a moment, but it's a moving reminder both of those serving overseas and of those on these shores who are going without.

One bizarre note: The "live" Terra Cotta Warrior, Chi Chang, who has been showing up around town as a gimmick to promote the statues in the National Geographic exhibition, will make a cameo appearance in the party scene at Saturday's 2 p.m. performance, in his full baked-earth regalia. (Other special guests, including George Stephanopoulos, have appeared in past years.) Which prompts the thought: As the next party pop-ins -- the Salahis?

Financial strain has led the company to use taped music in place of a live orchestra playing Tchaikovsky's score, and this takes the festive atmosphere down a notch or two. It's a shame that the dancing and the opulent production values aren't further enhanced by theater-filling sound. But despite that, Thursday's cast whisked up momentum and kept it going straight through to a singularly pumped-up finale, with Brooklyn Mack's frontiersman windmilling through space in a run of no-hands cartwheels and double back-flips that nearly shot him into the wings.

As Clara, Washington School of Ballet student Talia Startsman embodied girlishness in full flower, with note-perfect animation. One of the least showy but most memorable segments is for the Anacostia Indians (the Arabian dance, in other productions). Here, in stunning un-costumes that bared more than they covered, Laura Urgelles and Tamás Krizsa were steeped in understated nobility. Overstatement was more typically the order of the evening, but it wasn't out of place, not in this world where, at one point, a gigantic Mother Barnum whirls atop a carousel that spills out little clowns.

The full-on energy of this production is well-framed by Peter Horne's beautifully painted sets, which don't strive to be realistic. Rather, they are entirely two-dimensional; the effect is of a Victorian pop-up Christmas card, which throws the live performers into relief. The lighting has been improved in the second act, adding more warmth to the antics here among the bumblebees, mushrooms, deer, foxes and other adorable fauna. Rather than conjuring up a land of bonbons, this "Nutcracker" takes us to springtime, on the banks of the Potomac, and it's quite a nice place to end up.

The Nutcracker

presented by the Washington Ballet through Dec. 27 at the Warner Theatre. Call 877-598-8497 or visit

© 2009 The Washington Post Company