Cracking Open Christmas

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Washington Ballet Puts D.C. Twist on Tchaikovsky Classic

No doubt you’ve noticed — Christmas is just around the corner.

The skating rinks open, the Salvation Army shows up on street corners, every musical institution rolls out Handel’s “Messiah,” and Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” make its yearly comeback (incidentally, the Ford’s Theatre annual production is being performed at the new Lansburgh Theatre this year).

Very little of this has anything to do with the actual story of the Nativity, but Christmas has long served as both a religious and secular kind of holiday in which people shop, celebrate, reflect and support the performing arts.

But if there is one performance piece that signifies the season more than any other, it’s probably the story of a little girl, a soldier prince, a mouse king, sugar plum fairy and some of the most gorgeous music ever composed.

We are talking, of course, about “The Nutcracker” by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, a thoroughly Russian ballet first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892. Though popular in Russia, it took the rest of Europe and especially the Americans to turn “The Nutcracker” into an enduring Christmas classic and staple in its various guises. Luckily, the unforgettable fantastical drama, whether it takes place in St. Petersburg, Budapest, London or Washington, D.C., takes place at Christmastime, which makes it an instant must-see during the holiday season.

And in the nation’s capital, one of the most popular versions staged recently has come from the Washington Ballet and the company’s artistic director, Septime Webre, who sets the story in late 1800s Washington, D.C., appropriately enough. This very Washingtonian rendition has George Washington taking on the heroic role of the Nutcracker prince, defending our heroine Clara against the forces of the Rat King, who is personified by George III of England.

“I think because of our heritage, our training and dance programs for local youths, we are ideally situated to produce ‘The Nutcracker,’” Webre said in a telephone interview. “We use some 300 youngsters in our production, in alternating parts. There are 90 young performers each time. So there is this very real connection to the city in our production.”

Webre sees the hugely popular children’s classic — despite its overseas origin — as evidence of Americans searching for cultural events around which to gather. “We’re a young country and ‘The Nutcracker’ has a tremendous general appeal to us. It’s a family, holiday, cultural event,” he said, paralleling it to “A Christmas Carol” — “except it has the additional appeal of a tremendous classical musical score that’s familiar to everyone.”

“There’s also the fact that it’s the kind of work of art that everyone can appreciate,” he added. “Children, especially young girls, find it thrilling, because it’s a young girl’s coming-of-age story and there’s the fantasy, the beauty of the setting, and parents go to hear this phenomenal music.”

As a result, there have been thousands of “Nutcracker” productions, large and small, peppered throughout the country, often in community halls, schools, gymnasiums or churches. In fact, Chelsea Clinton was in the cast when she was a student at Sidwell Friends while her father was president. And there are two new young girls, princesses no doubt, coming to town when the Obama family arrives.

One of the most notable productions was choreographed by American legend George Balanchine, and another staged by Mikhail Baryshnikov when he was with the New York City Ballet. There is also the startling Mark Morris version, which looked at the dark undertones of Clara’s family, the mysterious gift-bringing Drosselmeyer, and some of the more dysfunctional elements of the various princes and mice.

This year, in addition to the Washington Ballet, the American Dance Institute in Rockville, Md., is presenting a tamer children’s-oriented “Nutcracker” from Dec. 19 to 21, capped off by a Sugar Plum Extravaganza, while the Puppet Co. Playhouse is performing its 25th anniversary benefit show of the children’s tale on Dec. 13 at Glen Echo Park in Maryland. For the adults, the Joffrey Ballet returns to the Kennedy Center from December 11 to 14 with its sumptuous version of “The Nutcracker,” first staged by founder Robert Joffrey — an annual tradition that the Kennedy Center says audiences will cherish, “whether you’re six or ninety-six.”

And therein lies the universal appeal of this children’s fairytale — it’s not just for children. Despite its utter strangeness in certain sections, it draws people in with its ideal (almost) Christmas setting, where families and friends have gathered in a spacious home, awaiting the coming of an uncle or grandmother figure bearing gifts. Dolls come to life, sleighs arrive, packages are unwrapped, music soars and twinkles, and you can practically feel the thrill of anticipation. “The Nutcracker” in this way is about children — and the child in all of us.

In particular though, it centers around one child, Clara, who receives a Nutcracker figure that her jealous brother breaks. Night comes and Clara awakes into a dream filled with mice running about threateningly, as the Nutcracker prince leads his soldiers into battle against the Rat King. What follows is a kind of rapturous delirium of snowflakes and beauty — divertissements of Arabian and Russian dancers, Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles, and of course the Sugar Plum Fairy, the queen of the sweets.

And all of this is a sweet children’s delight. Just watch the well-dressed boys and girls in the theater sometime and you’ll see their amazement at the costumes, characters, music and dance — and watch how quickly they forget that their parents made them dress up for the show. And take a glimpse at the parents too, and see how their own childlike wonderment emerges — a reflection that this iconic Christmas tradition is a tough nut to crack. That is, it still hasn’t lost any of its magic, even after more than a century’s worth of retellings and reimaginings.

The Nutcracker Dec. 5 and 6 THEARC, 1901 Mississippi Ave., SE

Dec. 11 to 28 Warner Theatre, 513 13th St., NW Tickets are to . For more information, please call (202) 397-SEAT or (202) 889-8150 or visit www.washingtonballet.org.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 9, 2014