Ballet West’s charming production of “The Nutcracker” couldn’t have come at a better time for a Washington weary from bad news.
If the world feels cold and heavy, if the reality of what some are capable of doing to others weighs upon you, this ballet, which opened at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night, offers a comfort of sorts. Here is a place where the music, Tchaikovsky’s wondrous score performed by the Opera House Orchestra, seems to carry the dancers along in its currents and where lightness is the reigning esthetic.
This is not the most action-packed of “Nutcrackers,” not one to win accolades for theatrical effects or even ingenious choreography. It’s a vintage edition of the long-popular ballet, and like many things from earlier times, it’s a bit simpler and slower paced than newer renditions.
In fact, the production Ballet West performs, with its carolers, dancing teddy bear and a movie-star glamorous Sugar Plum Fairy with a gold train, was this country’s very first full-length “Nutcracker.” It was created in 1944 by Willam F. Christensen, based on recollections of the Russian version passed on to him by none other than George Balanchine, a decade before Balanchine created his own “Nutcracker” for the New York City Ballet.
Christensen’s ballet is an immersion in the colors and decor of the wartime era, with an intent to supply much-needed cheerfulness. Think ruffly trimmings, soft pastels and metallic undertones; floral touches; and the continuing influence of Art Deco. The costumes, by David Heuvel, are superbly made for an effect of lightness and ease, with weightless, sheer fabrics that seem to float.
The colors are easy on the eye — dusty shades of pink, purple and gold, with touches of blue. The snowflakes are a silvery blue, for instance, rather than blinding white. The Opera House stage is never cluttered, and the dancing unfolds in clear, well-ordered lines.
The first act is rather sedate, however, and that uncluttered quality feels more like emptiness when the Stahlbaum family’s Christmas tree begins to grow by magic and the only one witnessing it is Dr. Drosselmeyer, the avuncular master of ceremonies.
I’ve never been so happy to see, finally, an invasion of mice. And these mice are especially splendid: giant, furry knockabouts who would still be up there clowning around if it weren’t for young Clara’s deadly aim with her slipper (Wednesday’s Clara was the poised Tillie Glatz, one of many terrific children in the cast).
The second act is Christensen’s triumph. The vintage touches are delightful: The Arabian dance’s turbaned magician in harem pants is a mix of Ballets Russes exoticism and Harry Houdini. The Mirlitons, led by Sayaka Ohtaki, are like porcelain figurines from your grandmother’s dresser come to life.
The choreography is less than dazzling, especially in the snow scene and the Waltz of the Flowers. It’s a relic of a pre-Balanchine era of unadorned elegance, with a straightforward use of the music and the stage space. There are traces of “Giselle” and “Les Sylphides” in the arrangements of the corps de ballet women into sculptural clusters of three or four, which harken to timeless symbols of feminine modesty, beauty and friendship.
Ballet West’s technical strengths are well suited to this style. The dancers are so very pleasing, with a pronounced prowess in jumping, further underscoring the air of lightness. Some of the soloists were underpowered, however, and partnering was a bit shaky throughout the evening.
Beckanne Sisk and Christopher Ruud, as one of the most appealing pairings of Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in memory, hit a high mark of classical style and grace. Sisk, who is quite a special dancer, made an instant connection with the audience and deepened it with a refined, elastic quality of great authority and ease. Ruud looked like the happiest person in town, wanting nothing more than to share his joy. Pleasantness is an age-old ballet trait, but Ruud communicated something delicious and rare and deeply appreciated: happiness — unforced and free.
Through Sunday, with cast changes, at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org. Tickets: $56-$165.