Share the Magic: The Washington Ballet’s New Nutcracker

Have you ever felt the warm comfort of returning to a familiar place? There’s a sense of safety, comfort and convenient predictability to its rhythm. Well, have you ever returned to the same place for over forty years? The company and the school of the Washington Ballet have, ever since the premier of Mary Day’s production of The Nutcracker in 1961.

As a student of the Washington School of Ballet having performed for eight years in The Nutcracker, I was one of many who grew accustomed to its characters, its scenery and its choreography. I knew the faces on and off stage: the parents powdering my nose with makeup, the “men in black” (members of the stage crew), and of course the glowing prima ballerina, whose face it seemed everyone knew. In the early weeks, casting worked like clockwork: depending on what role I played last year, I could practically calculate with my friends (assuming I didn’t already outgrow the costume) what role I would graduate into this year.

However, last spring the Ballet announced the retirement of Mary Day’s production and the emergence of Septime Webre’s new The Nutcracker. For us young dancers still alien to the word retirement we heard, “The Nutcracker” and assumed standard operating procedure. But it was not until just a few weeks ago at auditions upon hearing phrases like “George Washington,” “John Paul Jones,” and “hot air balloon exit” that the wide-eyed boys and girls who had prepared for “Party” and “Battle” scenes quickly realized they were not in Kansas anymore.

In fact, Tchaikovsky’s sweeping score was our only ally in this uncharted area. The new characters, choreography and costumes all seemed a little hectic. Our toy soldiers now face a Rat King with an uncanny resemblance to King George III. Even at the rehearsal for the opening performance in Baltimore, the rats rehearsed for the first time with their headpieces, their snouts knocking into other dancers. Meanwhile, the soldiers do a march of which the Rockettes would be proud. Little “party girls” with ringlets compared their dress colors and styles amidst the many fluttering volunteers and seam-stresses tucked into every room of the Bowles of the hippodrome in Baltimore, sewing, altering, trimming and often whisking the costumes to the dressing rooms with minutes before curtain time.

“Oh, that’s nothing,” reveals a senior student, “today, during the morning school performance, they decided during intermission to add us to the finale. Just as the curtain fell for the fifteen minute break, they grabbed us and taught us a routine to be performed in the next act.”

These ballerinas are students who do their homework in the halls, need a roadmap to find their own sneakers, and could not repress a giggle if their life depended on it. Their mothers exchange endless trips to the grocery store and the dry cleaners with hairspray duty, button duty, shoelace duty, lipstick duty and pretty much any duty and any duty a mom could do. It is as if, with some coalescing of global forces, the stars aligned so that these costumes conceived in New York, cut from material in Japan and sewn together in Atlanta could be worn by dancers coming from every corner of the greater Washington area.

And in the final days of rehearsal with pages upon pages of corrections and coaching still to be dished out an amazing new force has arisen inside this wide community. As nervous as we are, we are all nervous, together. Instead of old timers teaching the new kids on the block, this performance is a first for all of us. And when the curtain goes up on opening night, our necks are all on the line together. It is an uplifting sense of unity, a sink of swim together attitude that has manifested a new found faith in each other – knowing we won’t sink, we’ll swim!

And so with that warm comfort of returning to a familiar place that so many of us still cherish in our memories of a past Nutcracker story, we are washed over by the tremendous positivity that surrounds something new: it has a perfect freshness, unused and unflawed polish, and like everything else brand new and hot in the spotlight, it is terribly intriguing.

I have researched and aided the formation of this new production for over a year now and I am so deeply proud of what this beautiful community of exceptionally hard-working, talented and passionate people is presenting at The Warner Theater. I get chills when I hear the opening Nutcracker theme, that march that immediately gives the feeling that Christmas is here. I beam every time the soldiers come on stage as I have rehearsed these sixty 7-12 year olds over and over again. And I still think the Sugar Plum Fairy is the most ballerina in the world each time I watch her embraced by her cavalier.

Now, for us Washingtonians, the experience becomes even more meaningful. Additions include the Waltz of The Flowers set amidst the cherry blossoms on the banks of the Potomac and a George Washington vsKing George battle scene complete with Paul Revere’s midnight ride, Betsy Ross and Benjamin Franklin. The opening Christmas Party scene will be set in the parlor of a Georgetown Mansion and various figures from Washington’s past will appear in the Party Scene such as Frederick Douglas. Clara is whisked away to The Land of The Sweets on an old fashioned paddle-wheel steamship and met by Anacostia Indians. She then returns home in a 19th Century hot air balloon.

This production holds so many more wonderful surprises that you must see sparkle before your eyes. Friendly faces you might see there are NCS Upper School Washington Ballet students such as Alex Ignatius, Kate Adamson, Kate Page and myself. We will be backstage in the wings and looking forward to seeing you and your family there this holiday season sharing the magic of The Nutcracker.