By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 5, 2010; 8:10 PM
We're knee-deep in the nationwide "Nutcracker" rollout, the great American Christmas party hosted by your local ballet troupe. If most other ballets have but a wobbly footing on the national cultural scene, the escapades of little children and tippy-toeing mice hold us in eternal thrall.
Dress and decorate their "Nutcrackers" as they might - at the Warner Theatre, the Washington Ballet hews to a Washington theme; more on that in a moment - the one thing ballet companies never mess with is Tchaikovsky's music. I think the music is the chief reason "The Nutcracker" remains so popular: Tchaikovsky's score is an inviting world unto itself, with its building sense of wonder twinned with nostalgia. Its moods can be joyous, poignant or tender, but it is resoundingly optimistic, with none of the darker emotional upheaval that figures into the Tchaikovsky ballets "Swan Lake" and "The Sleeping Beauty."
Then there is the variety and perfect cohesion of one tune after another, calling to mind the robust joys of a childhood most of us have never had but which we recognize as familiar and comforting nonetheless. The music settles the listener into a relaxed and festive mood, and it unspools the story with exceptional clarity.
And the story? It's simple and swift-paced, less like a typical ballet than like . . . television. Think about it: The first act is a sitcom, the second act a variety show. The Stahlbaum family hijinks - mischievous kids, tipsy adults, a broken-toy drama resolved with a kiss - give way to a parade of special guests, from Mother Ginger's comedy act to the romantic idols, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier.
The dancing is unfailingly high-spirited - and brief. In any given "Nutcracker," there's just enough choreography, in a direct, celebratory folk-dance style, to entertain. To a ballet newcomer, "The Nutcracker" doesn't feel like a foreign language, the way other ballets might.
"Swan Lake's" success hangs on the quality of the dancing, but not so "The Nutcracker." Chances are, adequate skill and the most rudimentary choreography will look splendid paired with that Tchaikovsky music - especially if charming costumes are involved. The role of costuming in "The Nutcracker's" popularity cannot be underestimated. Typically, there is far more luxury on view in little Clara's household and in her fantasy land of sweets than in any other ballet. Companies can justify lavish spending on sets and costumes for "The Nutcracker," since they'll be banking on its ticket sales for their survival year after year.
Thus it is that the Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker," which opened Friday and will continue through Dec. 26, is a spectacular eyeful. The colors and decorative detail are simply gorgeous, from the paintings that cover the walls of Act I's richly furnished Georgetown mansion to the bright geometric prints of the little clowns that tumble out of the merry-go-round, complete with painted horses, in Act II. (This is the Mother Ginger segment, dubbed Mother Barnum in this production, though it is by no means the only spot of comic relief.)
This production is truly Artistic Director Septime Webre's greatest triumph, a showcase of his skills at stage direction and in sustaining a spectacle.
Hearty praise is due to the dancers as well, especially Rui Huang and Jared Nelson as the Snow Queen and King, Sona Kharatian and Tamas Krizsa as the Anacostia Indians (in what is traditionally known as the Arabian variation), Maki Onuki as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Jonathan Jordan as her cavalier.
The students from the Washington School of Ballet are delightful, and there is no end to their cuteness: bees, butterflies and furry woodland creatures attend the festivities under the cherry blossoms in Act II. Two of the school's young male dancers, Albert Gordon and Roland Spier, displayed thrilling promise in the "Stars and Stripes" duet, just one of many impressive moments in the battle scene. Christianne Campbell's Clara displayed the essence of good behavior.
Regarding the music, it is by now, sadly, no surprise that this production is danced to a taped score; for financial reasons the company has not used an orchestra in the past two seasons. But in breaking with its long tradition of live Tchaikovsky, the Washington Ballet has substituted a poor-quality recording of no distinction - I am told by the press office that it is a compilation of "various tracks collected from various orchestras."
The sound is particularly goopy in the Sugar Plum Fairy's solo, one of Tchaikovsky's most beloved creations. Surely his greatest gift to the ballet world can be better served with a more distinguished recording.
The Nutcracker Performances continue through Dec. 26, with cast changes, at the Warner Theatre.