Ballet West’s ‘Nutcracker’

‘Tis the season for Nutcrackers. And in the nation’s capital, that means Washington Ballet is installed for an extended run at the Warner Theater. In cities large and small across America, however, there’s at least anecdotal evidence that the local ballet company pays for the rest of its season with ticket revenues from the Tchaikovsky holiday classic.

With that truth as backdrop, the Kennedy Center has traditionally taken a different tack. Each year, this country’s signature performing arts venue invites a different ballet company to visit with its Nutcracker, thus giving DC audiences the chance to see different sets, costumes and choreography right along with different dancers. This year it’s Ballet West’s turn to come calling for a handful of performances. And if you are in the area, we’d suggest you not miss it.

For starters, while we’ve enjoyed our share of Nutcrackers here and there across Balletland , you’ll join us in witnessing a production that made American history.

In 1937, Utah-born Willam Christensen “went west” – yes, even west from there – and founded the San Francisco Ballet with his brothers Lew and Harold, thus launching the first ballet company in the western United States. It was there that Willam created the choreography for his Nutcracker, joining his Coppelia and Swan Lake as the very first American full-length ballet productions. It was these he took “east” with him when, concerned about his wife’s health, he started a small company in Salt Lake City in 1951.

“Mr. C” guided that company, and especially his Nutcracker, at what became Ballet West until his death at age 99 in 2001. According to those who know, allowing for tweaking to keep it from creaking, that is The Nutcracker that Ballet West brings to the Kennedy Center. And with scenic design by John Wayne Cook, costume design by David Heuvel, lighting by Kevin Dreyer and projections by Mike Tutaj, it’s nothing short of magnificent.

As veterans of this evergreen ballet understand, there are three main components you need to get right, and this production manages all three – while adding considerable stage technology (including brilliant use of projections and one final ooh-ahh flourish) along the way. First, there is Tchaikovsky’s music, indelible, hummable and, by this point, a tad too familiar. You have to play it, somehow, as though no one has ever heard it before.

Conducting the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, Ballet West music director Jared Oaks sets a brisk pace without ever seeming to rush. Well-known themes almost feel newly discovered as the orchestra plays through them the first time, since repetition with building intensity matters almost as much to this music as it does, say, in Ravel’s Bolero.

The second thing any Nutcracker needs, especially in Act I, is storytelling. Helped by a frequently changing set and projections, we are invited inward from snowy street scene to house façade to house interior, following the ever-mysterious Dr. Drosselmayer and his assistant to a festive holiday party around a decorated tree. Characters at the party – and especially Beau Pearson as Drosselmayer – are quickly and skillfully defined, as is the gift of a wooden nutcracker to the host’s daughter, Clara. With a thick swatch of white hair flipping down over his eyes, Pearson brings a bit of punk-meets-grunge to his timelessly creepy role

Before long, with an assist from Clara (gracefully danced on opening night by local Makenzie Hymes, at other performances by Annabelle Eurich), that wooden nutcracker has become a real prince, he and his stiff-bodied soldiers have defeated the Mouse King and his furry army – and Clara is spirited away, presumably in her dreams, to a beautiful land filled with music, never-scary foreign people and, most of all, tireless dancing for her entertainment.

That’s where the third thing, virtuosity, comes in.

Though Act I’s finale with the Snow Queen and her Cavalier (Emily Adams and Adam Fry on opening night) gets things moving, Act II is one long, energized and colorful series of solos, pas de deux and ensembles. For excitement, your best bets include the Russian Dance with its textbook leaping, kicking and shouting, the exotic and evocative Arabian Dance, and the colorful Chinese Warrior complete with billowing street dragon. Surely an audience favorite is the comic Mother Buffoon (again, Beau Pearson) whose very large dress keeps spitting out tiny but agile young dancers who’ve clearly taken a bit of gymnastics.

The Grand Pas de Deux (Beckanne Sisk and Chase O’Connell on opening night) is a 10-plus-minute tribute to everything that makes ballet beloved among those who love ballet. Dancing together, then he-solo, then she-solo, then finally together again, the two don’t miss a step with the stirring, altogether irresistible music. O’Connell is a calm and capable partner, providing support until it’s his moment to shine. With the deep understanding of dance tradition and showmanship that Christensen leaves us as his legacy, this “grand” pas de deux actually is as advertised.

Photos by Beau Pearson

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