Sunday, December 14, 2008

Things to do in DC: The Washington Ballet

When I was younger, I loved ballet. I even took a class for about a year when I was around 7. Obviously, I didn't stick with it, but I always loved the idea of it. When I got old enough to actually attend ballet performances, the shine had worn off, and I realized that most ballet is actually kind of boring. Case in point: my friend Dorilyn and I went to see Swan Lake earlier this year performed by a visiting Russian ballet company at George Mason, and while it was beautiful, it was very traditional, lasted approximately 3 hours, and was kinda boring. The dancers were wonderful, the costumes beautiful but it was just....boring.

Cut to yesterday when my Mom and I attended the Washington Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker, and I'm ready to take it all back. This wasn't boring; this was thrilling, funny, touching, and beautiful. But The Nutcracker, and the Washington Ballet's staging of it, has a few things going for it that make it better than your usual ballet.

First of all, it's very Washington specific, and since I love the city, I appreciate the little touches. The party at Clara's home takes place in an 1882 Georgetown mansion, and features appearances from a Civil War veteran, the head of a posh DC school, and Frederick Douglass, a DC resident at the time. When Clara sees the battle between the mice and toy soldiers under the Christmas tree, it turns into a battle between the red coats and the colonials, and the Rat King appears as King George III and the Nutcracker Prince is George Washington. In Act II, the Divertissement numbers are performed in the land of Springtime in the Tidal Basin under the blooming cheery blossoms, and instead of the dance of the Sugar Plum fairies, it's the dance of the cherry blossoms. Finally, the slow Divertissement for coffee (the Arab dance) was a simmering sensual number performed by two Anacostian Indians that wasn't overtly racy, but was danced with such passion, I worried about the kids in the audience ("Mommy, why is that buff shirtless Indian guy putting his hands there?").

Another thing that separates The Nutcracker from other ballets, is its incorporation of younger dancers. The Washington Ballet uses dancers from its school in The Nutcracker and they play the roles of Clara, the Nutcracker Prince, teens and children at the Act I party, and various animals, clowns, etc. in Act II. The kids (especially the really young ones) are adorable and precious and make me remember when I dreamed I had a future as a ballet dancer. They are genuinely joyful and their enthusiasm easily spreads to the audience.

Also making a point in favor of The Nutcracker is the music. While Tchaikovsky stated that it was his least favorite of all his ballets, it is without a doubt, his most well known. Which means that I was familiar with almost all 2 hours of the music; from television, Disney's Fantasia, and my Christmas CDs which include most of the numbers. I can't speak for others, but I find ballet more engaging when I know the music and can focus on the interpretation provided by the dance.

And finally, if I can just gush for a moment, the staging of this ballet is fantastic. The choreography is new and interesting (except perhaps the Pas Des Deux performed by the Dew Drop Fairy and her Prince near the end which is very "traditional" ballet) and was done by Septime Webre, whose other work I would love to check out. The costumes are amazing from the nineteenth century party guests, to the snowflakes (pictured), the cardinals, the frontiersman, the toy soldiers, the cherry blossoms, etc. etc. etc. Oh, and the kids outfits were all freaking adorable! And the sets were beautiful. During Act II the spring-time Tidal Basin was like a dream, and the stage literally dripped with delicate cherry blossoms. After the battle under the Christmas Tree, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince enter a snowy wonderland where snow falls from above the stage for at least 20 minutes during the dancing and really helps transport the audience.

See the snow falling?! And how pretty the costumes are for the snowflakes?! And how pretty and elegant they all are?! Sorry, gushing again.

Anyway, I think this show might have to become a yearly tradition, because I absolutely loved it. And if they continue to offer $30 orchestra seats, I am definitely on board!

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