If you thought for even a minute that in the second weekend of performances, at the second performance of the day, that the extremely young dancers of the Washington Ballet would falter; that maybe a hint of exhaustion would sneak into their footwork; that perhaps the pressure of such a demanding extracurricular would catch up to them– this must be your first time you’ve seen the Nutcracker done right.
To label youth participation in the Washington Ballet as an “extracurricular” is easily an insult. The most hyperactive, motormouthed children in this company transform into professionals on cue. Yes, a throng of professional clowns, bumblebees and mushrooms. The years of experience behind stunning and precise solos carried out by the lead dancers of the company garnered enormous applause all night, but those bouts of applause were competing against the sheer adorability factor of these incredibly well-disciplined children; the kind of children that made any parent envious, and any future parents resentful of their future children.
But this is not a youth production, and all lightheartedness aside, the Washington Ballet expertly transforms this iconic holiday staple into their own DC tribute. This version of the Nutcracker is set in Georgetown on the cusp of the Revolutionary War. The Mouse King and his pack are British red coats, and their gingerbread man counterparts are colonial revolutionaries. Other patriotic modifications include walk-on roles from delegates, news anchors and even the Nationals’ racing presidents (who now have their own tutus). The comical and patriotic components of the performance are smart and welcomed touches, but in truth, the show would still thrive without them. The best of performances don’t need these components to thrive, so this localized version of the classic story only highlights the company’s creativity. This take makes the performance a new experience for anyone who has previously seen countless renditions.
The atmosphere backstage is an entirely different spectacle. Ballerinas are stretching, prepping their shoes, checking their phones and joking around with the younger ones. Sets are shifted rapidly between scenes, lighting cues are transmitted. The Land of Sweets, the play’s second act which features a succession of ensemble performances, sees hectic waves washing in and out of the backstage as one group lines up and another performs. Children chatter up until the second their cue is called. Their mothers marvel at how confident they are on stage and watch not so patiently from the wings. For every dancer that exits the stage, there is a uniform motion of slouching and panting, gasping for air following a physically demanding performance delivered with an exaggerated smile.
As I quite literally avoided stepping on anyone’s toes, I quickly realized that the behind the scenes action might have a higher impact as the production itself. It is only there that the appreciation of directors, production managers, costumers, choreographers, stagehands, tech crew and parents carry out their own performances with the same deft motion as the dancers on stage, and no applause is waiting for them. It’s an enthralling kind of madness to watch all these components unfold and merge into one; the kind your experience in high school pit orchestra didn’t prepare you for. There’s no anxiety, only spirited execution– and if there is in fact anxiety, the Washington Ballet has perfected the craft of acting on multiple levels.
The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker continues its run through December 29th at the Warner Theater.