writers on dancing


"Nutcracker" on the Potomac

"The Nutcracker"
Washington Ballet
Warner Theater
Washington, D.C.
Friday, December 10, 2004

by Clare Croft
copyright © 2004 by Clare Croft

For the past 40 years, the Washington Ballet performed founder Mary Day’s Nutcracker; with the premiere of Artistic Director Septime Webre’s "Nutcracker" Friday, the company has found a Nutcracker for the next 40. The new version, set in Victorian era Washington, features ornate sets and costumes (designed by Peter Horne and Judanna Lynn respectively), roles tailored to incorporate hordes of young dancers and sprinklings of well-placed comedy. At times the dancing looked a bit timid (veering on occasion towards awkward), but probably nothing that a few more performances cannot eradicate.

Choreographically, the ballet seems unusually calm for a Webre work. His choreography commonly puts two…or three…or four steps for every musical count, but this production is a slightly tempered one. Webre scores several hits, including his sharp party scene and the Laura Urguelles and Alvaro Palau’s snaky Anacostia Indian dance (usually known as Arabian.) Mr. Webre’s inclination towards busyness works well for corps work, where he has a knack for intricate, unfolding group formations. In "Nutcracker," the waltz of the cherry blossoms (Washington’s famous spring bloomer), made good use of the slightly small Warner stage, as diagonal lines were bent to pleasing effect, the music swelling as the corps ran through and around each other. The swirling formations also worked well in other group scenes when patterns opened to reveal a lead character, giving the sense that the dancer appeared in a magical poof. Drosselmeyer (John Goding), the Snow Queen and King (Maki Onuki and Jonathan Jordan), and the cherry blossom’s Dewdrop (Erin Mahoney) all entered this way.

The ballet’s change of setting is not really a new idea. In the last decade, audiences have watched "Nutcrackers" reset in the 1960s and others focused on darker, Freudian interpretations of the Hoffman tale. So, this "Nutcracker"’s Victorian costumes and nods to locale (Frederick Douglass as a party guest played by lawyer Vernon Jordan Friday) were a welcome re-interpretation, not so far from the traditional as to make the ballet off-putting, but adding some cohesive ties and “ah-ha” moments. At the close of the Snow Scene, for example, Clara and her Prince, Joshua Starr, sail away on the Potomac in a small steamboat lit with Christmas lights, arriving on the river’s shore in Act II amidst blooming cherry blossoms.

My one overall question about the ballet lies, however, in the fact that it relies on the sets, costumes and characters to create the setting, rather than on the dancing. The party scene in particular screams for more period dancing, rather than traditional ballet steps. It is more the slight bustle of the women’s skirts and the muted tones of Clara’s home that suggest Victorian era fashion. But the sets and costumes are truly wonderful, at times so good they threaten to overwhelm the dancing. The best example comes in the ingenious use of scenery in the Chinese dance: younger dancers align frilly orange umbrellas to form a giant fish, complete with a blue tail held by the smallest dancer, reeled in by a miniature fisherman. The dragon-like creature is so striking that lead dancer Guy Fletcher seems an afterthought. (The umbrella-holders may have thought the same; they nearly ran him down on Friday.)

Even with the intricate, enveloping sets, several dancers commanded attention. Michele Jiminez was born to dance Sugar Plum, her effervescence and delicacy well framed by Act II’s set of cotton candy-esque cherry blossom petals. In her variation and during her adagio with Cavalier Runqiao Du, each step onto pointe had the delicacy of a tender peck on the cheek. As the lead Frontiersman, (formerly known as the Russian dance) Jonathan Jordan raided his bag of jumping tricks, eliciting gasps from the audience with a jump I can only describe: he hurled himself into the air, rotating at least once while parallel to the floor, leg in passé, then righted himself as he landed. He proved not only can he jump, but he can turn too, in his earlier appearance as Snow King with Ms. Onuki. The two are well matched as a couple, though neither had the regality required for the Snow Scene, but their pairing offers promise of better pas de deuxs to come. Ms. Onuki also did well as lead Cardinal (the dance usually known as Marzipan). Her rib cage and epaulement softened the dance, giving a nice sense of dynamic range to Act II’s most rhythmically monotonous moments. The corps as a whole performed well, completing Webre’s complicated patterns without skimping on port de bras, though leading the cherry blossom corps, Ms. Mahoney struggled to do the same. The music’s tempo and bevy of steps kept her from pushing her long frame through all the finishing flourishes that she can do so beautifully.

And, even more so than most "Nutcrackers," the cuteness factor was in full effect here. Webre uses the tiniest of the party guests to his advantage, particularly when the littlest boy imitates the grandfather, waving mistletoe to attract two pint-sized girls. Then in the battle scene and Act II, the small furry animals appear often and in great number: Valley Forge bunnies beat the snare drum as Redcoat rats face off with American soldiers and the Sugar Plum is waited upon by animals, a squirrel, fox, deer and frog among them.

Volume 2, No. 47
December 13, 2004
Copyright ©2004 by Clare Croft


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last updated on December 13. 2004