Septime Webre’s choreography is invariably life-affirming, joyous and high on energy and exuberance. His Nutcracker, the ultimate feel-good childhood fantasy-world ballet, performed for an eager Christmas audience, is a fine showcase for these qualities. Framed in the salubrious Georgetown in 1882 (although if we were to quibble about historical accuracy, Georgetown being then in industrial decline was far from being as salubrious as it is now), the production weaves in many allusions to American history, from Pueblo Indian kachina dolls and George III (no less) in Act I, to wild frontiersmen, Anacostia Indians (otherwise the Arabian dance) and, to crown it all, the world-famed cherry blossom festival which transformed the Waltz of the Flowers into a glorious piece of Washingtonian self-referentiality. All these were very pleasing details, and another testament, if testament was needed, to just how far this very German story (Hoffmann) adapted for Russian ballet (Petipa and Ivanov) has become thoroughly Americanized. It has been to all intents and purposes rebranded with a ‘made in America’ tag.

The Washington Ballet in <i>The Nutcracker</i> © media4artists, Theo Kossenas
The Washington Ballet in The Nutcracker
© media4artists, Theo Kossenas

Among the many children on stage, and Webre clearly likes ballets with lots of tots and numbers of others (he boasted at the start that there were over 500 cast performing in the whole of the Nutcracker run this season), there are always some with precocious stage presence, and others who just smile out at their doting parents. Petticoated and sailor-suited little people, waggling bees, toadstools, blossoms and toy soldiers have their own appeal, and some excitable raggedness of the line is surely permissible. Would one want to replace charm altogether with perfectly polished technique? I think not. That said, the toy soldiers to a boy (and girl), marched absolutely in time, which was impressive. The young Chloe Campbell was tonight’s flaxen-haired Clara. She had lovely lines, and danced nicely; she just needed to be told that she didn’t have to wear the fixed perma-smile for the audience, that real joy of the kind the young Clara feels is supposed to come from within.

I fell to thinking a lot about the female corps especially in the first Act's 'Snow Scene' and in the second Act's 'Springtime under the Cherry Blossoms'. It began to dawn upon me (and not for the first time watching The Washington Ballet), that whilst there are, among the ensemble, good, even fine dancers, the corps doesn't dance as one, in unity, each dancer an individual doing her own performance, which more or less coincides. Physical homogeneity and the resulting easiness on the eye that genuine synchronicity produces is substantially missing. I wondered whether in this most individualistic of Western cultures, such homogeneity is not deeply counter-cultural, and therefore maybe even not the desired aim? In any case, especially when there is a lot going on visually (and we had falling snow and blossoming blossoms in the mix too), the corps will need to learn to breathe together, and seek to create that extraordinary illusion of one dancer dancing through many bodies, or even, at its most transcendent, one unified body with extraordinary limbs. As it was, their waltzes were jumpy and choppy (too many flurried steps, too much activity) without being in any way lyrical or smooth.

The <i>Nutcracker</i> Mice © media4artists, Theo Kossenas
The Nutcracker Mice
© media4artists, Theo Kossenas

In the various divertissements to dazzle the eyes of the impressionable Clara, there were some strong performances. Jonathan Jordan made an energetically wild frontiersman. The female lead of the Spanish dancers, Venezuelan Francesca Dugarte was sultry and vivacious in her movements: a dominating stage presence. Tamako Miyazaki, the chief Cardinal bird was suitably lithe-footed and avian. Ukranian Kateryna Derechyna  as the Sugar Plum Fairy had ethereal grace and good long lines; at last the eye could rest and be filled with the illusion of lengthening space and time. Her partner, Gian Carlo Perez, has very definite poise and enviable agility and ease in his leaps and turns – certainly a notable talent in the male company. The Anacostian brave (Andile Ndlovu) and his maiden (Venus Villa) stole the show in many ways. Neither one nor the other took over: there was a shared synergy of bodies and of stage space which was most captivatingly achieved.

Despite my reservations about some key aspects, and despite the fact that one invariably misses the pulse of a live orchestra accompanying the dancers, tis the season to be jolly, and Webre’s Nutcracker boasts plenty of that sort of jolliness.

***11