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Ballet West’s historic, sumptuous ‘Nutcracker’ delights at the Kennedy Center

Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker,” at the Kennedy Center through Sunday. (Luke Isley)

Is it just me, or does optimism feel like a coveted luxury item this year? More difficult to come by than a Diorissimo bag, more spiritually sustaining than a Godiva chocolate gift tower. And yet, here comes “The Nutcracker,” an especially pretty one, performed by Salt Lake City’s Ballet West, and it’s all sunlight and warmth. Even though it begins with snow.

Spring has a starring role in this “Nutcracker,” populated with bees, butterflies and flowers. Snow, also, is so abundant in the romantic world of this production, at the Kennedy Center Opera House through Dec. 9, that it’s an accessory — the waltzing Snowflakes carry snowball nosegays. Butterflies are cherished here: The Sugar Plum Fairy — “The Nutcracker’s” monarch — is clearly descended from a royal line of them. She sports the most magnificent pair of golden, spotted butterfly wings. 

This is not only a beautifully danced and gorgeously designed production. It’s also historic. Ballet West performs the nation’s first and longest-running production, created by Willam Christensen in 1944. Christensen, director of the San Francisco Ballet in the 1940s, had not seen a complete “Nutcracker” before creating his own; he learned about it from the Russian emigre dancers George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova, who were familiar with the original 1892 production by St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet. Christensen met them when they stopped in San Francisco while on tour with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. When Christensen left that city and founded what would become Ballet West, he brought his “Nutcracker” with him.

Washington audiences last saw Ballet West’s version of the holiday favorite in 2014, also at the Kennedy Center. The current visit features the same clear, refined and somewhat unflashy Christensen choreography, but it has been treated to $3 million worth of new sets and costumes.

The result is a fine balance of textural spectacle and elegant dancing. The first act proceeds just a tad slowly, as the Stahlbaums’ Christmas party is a well-mannered affair and the bulk of the dancing comes in the second act. On Wednesday, the party scene’s highlight was the pairing of a marvelous dancing bear (pity Vinicius Lima, the sweaty human inside all that fur) and Sayaka Ohtaki’s exquisitely delicate doll.

There are so many delightful touches here. The second act opens with a brief glimpse of a puppet-show version of young Clara’s journey from her childhood home to the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. There was a fine sense of polish throughout the ballet; this is not a company given to dazzle or any kind of forced displays of technical fireworks. The sense of calm self-possession was serenely evident in the Mirlitons, especially, with their nod to French court dancing. I was as excited as young Clara (the wonderfully animated and lively Makenzie Hymes) to meet, finally, the Sugar Plum Fairy, for Beckanne Sisk is one of the most charming and beguiling ballerinas to embody the role in recent memory. Truly, she had no need of wings to add lightness to her step. She was every bit the fairy-tale queen of one’s dreams — regal but warm, expressive but subtly so, who sustained her balances as if mere air held her up, and yet paradoxically, her dominant quality was softness.

A chief luxury of this production — of any “Nutcracker” one sees at the Kennedy Center — is hearing the Opera House Orchestra unspool the transporting Tchaikovsky score. (Jared Oaks conducted.)

Of course, there are other “Nutcrackers” around at this time of year. At the Warner Theatre, the Washington Ballet is celebrating the 15th anniversary of its Washington-themed production — beginning in a Georgetown mansion, ending up on the banks of the Potomac — created by former artistic director Septime Webre.

The transformation of this ballet into a holiday staple, an economic boon for the ballet companies that perform it and a canvas upon which choreographers can impose different visions of time, place and characters — these are all testaments to the brilliance of Christensen’s initial idea. How fortunate that alongside all the hundreds of other versions of “The Nutcracker,” his has endured — as he created it — all these years later.

Ballet West performs Willam Christensen’s “Nutcracker” at the Kennedy Center through Sunday.

Washington Ballet performs Septime Webre’s “Nutcracker” at the Warner Theatre through Dec. 28.