Visions of Cherry Blossoms Dance in These Heads

Washington Nutcracker Takes Historic Angle

Posted December 10, 2008 at 4:45pm

With its dancing cherry blossoms, British redcoats and Barnum circus clowns, the Washington Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker” is anything but typical.

Choreographed by the company’s artistic director, Septime Webre, the production is set in a Georgetown mansion in the year 1882 and integrates historic American figures and events.

“I wanted to connect to the city and connect to who we are as a people,” said Webre, who majored in history as an undergraduate. “You can recognize jetés and pirouettes, but everything in the ballet has an American flavor.”

Webre’s unique version of the holiday classic draws more than 35,000 people each year, and this year marks the production’s five-year anniversary. The ballet will run today though Dec. 28 at the Warner Theatre, with both afternoon and evening performances.

Even with Webre’s American twist, the production follows the classic nutcracker story where a young girl named Clara falls asleep after her family’s Christmas party and dreams of traveling through a magical land with a nutcracker prince.

The curtain opens on the party inside Clara’s Georgetown mansion, where historic figures such as Frederick Douglass appear as guests. Modern-day D.C. figures often take walk-on roles during the party, and this year Councilmembers Jack Evans, David Catania and Kwame Brown are among those scheduled to appear.

When Clara’s godfather arrives, he gives the children a dancing kachina doll from the American Southwest and a giant Humpty Dumpty, reminiscent of the rhyme that the colonists wrote to make fun of King George III. John Paul Jones and a symbolic character called Miss Liberty pop out of Humpty’s shell and dance for all the party guests.

Once the celebration ends, Clara falls asleep and wakes up to the sound of rats scampering across the floor of her Georgetown home. George Washington, who serves as Webre’s “Nutcracker” prince, quickly comes to Clara’s rescue with an army of Revolutionary soldiers and fights off the redcoat rodents and their leader, King George III. After Washington’s victory, snowflakes dance across a background of Jeffersonian-style architecture, bringing Act I to a close.

The second half of the show is set among the cherry blossoms in full bloom on the banks of the Potomac River. Instead of the typical international dances, Webre’s dancers take on a variety of American personas, including Anacostia Indians and American frontiersmen.

The ballet concludes with dances by Mother Barnum and her 19th-century circus clowns (Webre’s take on the Mother Ginger dance), the waltz of the cherry blossoms (instead of the traditional “Waltz of the Flowers”) and the classic pas de deux performed by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Until the show premiered in December 2004, the Washington Ballet performed a more traditional version of “The Nutcracker,” choreographed by the company’s founder, Mary Day. When Webre became artistic director in 1999, he came with a vision to connect the company’s work more closely with the D.C. community and decided that the annual “Nutcracker” performance would be a perfect opportunity.

“It is a unique moment when a critical mass of people come to the ballet,” Webre said.

In fact, out of the $4.5 million the company earns annually from ticket sales, Webre said almost $2 million comes from “The Nutcracker.”

“The show is really important to the business of ballet and our financial health,” Webre said. “It’s a port of entry for young people into the world of ballet.”

Although the show has remained basically the same since it premiered five years ago, Webre has made small changes and additions each season. This year, he added 12 snow angels to the snow scene and four bumblebees who accompany Clara on her journey through the cherry blossoms.

The new roles allow more Washington Ballet students to take part in the production and share moments in the spotlight with professional company members. According to Webre, this year’s ballet has three to five casts of students, depending on the role, including 60 children from the Washington Ballet’s special program in Anacostia.

With so many student performers and Webre’s unique American flavor, it’s no wonder the Washington Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” is a D.C. holiday favorite.

“Art is most powerful and successful when we can see ourselves on stage,” Webre said.

Tickets for the Washington Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker” run from $29 to $83 and can be purchased at the Warner Theatre Box Office and The Warner Theatre is located at the intersection of 13th and E streets Northwest.