The Ninja Turtles haven't won yet. Despite constant exposure to goo and gore, children can still be seduced by the simpler pleasures of "The Nutcracker." The Washington Ballet's cozy version of this tale of a girl and her weird doll has been part of this city's holiday traditions and childhood rituals for 30 years now, yet it still charms and, in its darker moments, frightens today's supposedly jaded and unflappable junior sophisticates.
"They're mice!" a small boy squealed as a half-dozen or so tiny ballet students scurried across the Lisner Auditorium stage at the beginning of Clara's Christmas Eve dream. The mouse costumes are new this year, and the heads have holes in the front so the children's faces show through. As most of the adults in the audience think, "How adorable," everyone under 6 ducks and covers, looking up every so often from the safety of a trusted lap to check out the battle. "Oh, they're funny mice," the same child said a few minutes later, his tone indicating that he hadn't been fooled one bit, as the mice began to play with their tails and gobble up the Christmas tree.
There's something for everyone in "The Nutcracker," not least the dancing. In the opener Friday night, Julie Miles gave one of the best performances of her career as the Sugar Plum Fairy. In Kevin McKenzie, the Washington Ballet's favorite son and now a permanent guest artist with the company, Miles finally has a partner of her stature, literally and figuratively. McKenzie is a tall man, and one used to partnering tall women. With his support, Miles could stretch her long limbs and take chances. She seemed freed even when dancing alone, her movements generous and confident. McKenzie's dancing, though cramped a bit by the small stage, was equally bold. The two were especially fine in the Adagio of the Grand Pas de Deux, where their movements and emotions matched the maturity and grandeur of Tchaikovsky's music.
Yan Chen, the Sugar Plum Fairy on Saturday night, was also most effective in the Adagio (with John Goding). She's an extremely musical dancer with a refined and quiet style, so the super-technician's approach she took in her solo seemed out of character and made her dancing look harsh.
The crowd-pleasing role in the famous Kingdom of Sweets divertissement is the leading Candy Cane. Friday night, Lynn Cote danced what is usually a man's role, substituting fouette's for the usual jumping splits at the end of the solo. Cote's frank, I'm-having-a-blast style suited the part perfectly, and she nailed every jump. On Saturday, Terace Jones beamed his thousand-watt smile at the audience as he bounced in and out of the hoops like some magic rubber toy.
The Snow Queens could have used a little magic. Francoise Thouveny (Friday) and Beth Bartholomew (Saturday) danced correctly enough, but both could phrase their dancing more graciously. The Snow Princes were more interesting. Christopher Doyle (Friday) is a clean, classical dancer with a good jump. Runqiao Do (Saturday), though uneven, is a dancer to watch. His jumps soar, his landings are cushy, and his big, easy way of moving, almost like an old-style Soviet dancer, is enchanting.
At "Nutcracker's" heart, of course, are the kids. Bill Quick's deceptively angelic-looking Fritz is the natural enemy of nice little girls in frilly dresses, and enlivens the first act's oh-so-correct party with his mischief. Elise Weisinger's Clara is an ordinary child whose bravery in battle surprises even her, and whose wondering adventure in dreamed kingdoms is totally fresh and believable. "The Nutcracker" continues at Lisner through Dec. 29.