By Gary Tischler. Photography by Tony Powell.
With Thanksgiving come and gone, it is now officially the season of the holidays, most visibly Christmas.
The season as it transpires is rich in icons and iconic doings. Christmas trees of various sizes from spectacular — befitting national standards and locations such as the Ellipse, the Capitol’s West Lawn and Union Station — to modest (meant to beckon from a corner window in a studio apartment) are being carried home on top of cars and trucks amid the sounds of sleigh bells ringing.
The activities slip and slide easily into traditions: 24-7 renditions of Christmas carols, decorated streetlights (and, in Georgetown, the light installations of “Glow”), office parties, performances sacred and festive, the yearly presence of “It’s a Wonderful Life” on television and, yes, myriad productions of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” throughout the land, including Ford’s Theatre. There be Scrooges among us from now until New Year’s.
And there be Nutcrackers.
If there is a work of art that represents the season on a universal level, it is “The Nutcracker,” the palpably exultant ballet flavored and textured by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s genial and genius- level music. It is the season’s classic show, beyond boundaries and borders, radiating the airy, sometimes scary quality of E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fairy tale, in which children unforgettably enter a world of magical beings on Christmas Eve.
It is everywhere in December. Nutcrackers, Drosselmeyers, Claras, princes and princesses, soldiers and sugar plum fairies, rats and mice, dolls and dancers from lands far and near are omnipresent. Even if you are not an aficionado of ballet, you cannot help but be aware of, and drawn helplessly to, one of its many incarnations (with the kids in tow).
This is especially true in the District of Columbia, where the Washington Ballet is staging its 15th go-around with the version of “The Nutcracker” created by Septime Webre, the company’s former artistic director. Performances at the Warner Theatre continue through Dec. 28.
TOUCHING PEOPLE AT EVERY LEVEL
“‘The Nutcracker’ is a huge part of the season itself,” said Washington Ballet Artistic Director Julie Kent, an acclaimed principal dancer with New York’s American Ballet Theatre from 1993 to 2015.
“Somehow, ‘The Nutcracker’ touches people at every level, whether as part of the audience, as a parent or a child or adolescent or, if you are lucky enough, as a performer,” Kent explained. “My daughter Josephine, who’s now 9, was in it last year and is in it this year. So while you’re working on it in my official capacity, there’s the proud mother aspect, and everything you remember, too.”
Kent knows whereof she speaks. If “The Nutcracker” is the ballet as icon, Kent — tall, sometimes regal, with the halo of legend around her history and career — is the ballerina as icon. If you had to close your eyes and try to picture the most ballerina-like person you could, you’d open your eyes and, more often than not, see Kent in a classic pose, en pointe, not far removed from the fluttering sky, safe on the stage but ready for flight. As a prima ballerina, an artist of classical dance, she is up there among the big names: Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland and the like.
She entered ABT’s ranks at age 16, dancing with Mikhail Baryshnikov and accumulating a memorable series of principal roles, not to mention the Sugar Plum Fairy. “I think I’ve been in every production of ‘The Nutcracker’ as the Sugar Plum Fairy, or in some capacity through my whole career there,” she said.
Kent retired at age 42, with, by all accounts, an extraordinarily moving and memorable performance as Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet,” the imagery and the emotions, along with the bouquets, flooding the Metropolitan Opera House stage when the curtain went down on that June night in 2015.
TRADITION AND AN AMBITIOUS NEW VISION
The Washington Ballet’s version of “The Nutcracker,” conceived by Webre 15 years ago, is not your usual “Nutcracker.” It was and remains very, well, Washington, with a heroic George Washington and houseguests like Frederick Douglass, John Paul Jones, Harriet Tubman, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. It’s also, specifically, set in Georgetown, in a mansion no less.
It has a Rat King who is King George, there are Native Americans and Cherry Blossoms incarnate and, rumor has it, the Racing Presidents. Everyone, of course can add, change or frisson “The Nutcracker” to a fare-thee-well — think of the poodles in the Cincinnati Ballet production “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” and Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut” — but Webre’s American history spin on the classic has established a new holiday tradition in the nation’s capital.
Meanwhile, in line with Kent’s vision, the Washington Ballet has had to adapt to significant changes in style and direction. A highly praised production of “Giselle” in 2017 could be assumed to represent the company’s aspirations. A live orchestra has been added, and there is an ambitious push to become a national force, which would include touring.
Kent made clear what her aspirations and ambitions were when she and her family first decided to come here after a long and successful life in the radically different environment of New York. There, she recalled: “I and my husband went to work on the subway every day. You’re surrounded on a daily basis by the electric atmosphere of New York itself, and it’s an intense, creative environment.”
Her focus now is on building a company that is enduring, mounting productions of the best works of choreographers past and present at the highest level. She has no ambitions to be a choreographer, to create ballets, herself. “That’s not necessarily me,” she said. “I want to be the muse, a muse for and of the company.”
The mix of periods has been intriguing and challenging. The current season began with “TWB Welcomes,” which added guest stars for two programs that balanced classics with works by 20th-century choreographers from George Balanchine to Alexei Ratmansky. That was followed by a program called “Contemporary Masters,” namely Morris, Merce Cunningham and Paul Taylor.
Coming up in 2019 are “The Sleeping Beauty” (Feb. 27 to March 3 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater), with additional choreography by Kent and her husband, Associate Artistic Director Victor Barbee, and three commissioned world premieres (April 3 to 7 in Sidney Harman Hall).
“I was a kid in Bethesda here, so it’s familiar, but also different. It’s not exactly like coming home,” Kent said at the time her appointment as Washington Ballet artistic director was announced. “What I want is this to become one of the crown jewels among Washington cultural and performance institution … to increase our educational presence and our physical presence.”
Particularly during the holiday season, both the company’s presence and Julie Kent’s loom large on D.C.’s cultural scene, as sparkling as Tchaikovsky’s melodies and the tinsel on Christmas trees.
‘The Nutcracker’ runs through Dec. 28 at the historic Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. NW in downtown Washington, D.C. For tickets, visit ticketmaster.com.