Legend Julie Kent stages her first Washington Ballet ‘Nutcracker’

February 21, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley highlights 'The Nutcracker' at Warner Theatre (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — She first performed it with Mikhail Baryshnikov in New York.

Now, renowned ballerina Julie Kent stages her first season of Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” as the new artistic director of The Washington Ballet now through Dec. 24 at D.C.’s Warner Theatre.

Kent, who took over for Septime Webre this summer along with her husband Victor Barbee as associate artistic director, humbly insists the marquee still read, “Septime Webre’s The Nutcracker.”

“It’s the same and that’s why it’s Septime’s. It’s his production,” Kent told WTOP. “What my husband and I have brought is our years of experience dancing other productions of ‘Nutcracker.’ I think it can mostly be seen in the ‘Grand Pas de Deux’ and the ‘Snow Pas de Deux’ where I think you can see a bit of the tone of the work that we’re doing in the studio and in all the other ballets that we’re dancing.”

Watch our conversation with artistic director Julie Kent and dancer Luis Torres in the video below:

This is far from Kent’s first “Nutcracker” rodeo. In fact, the show helped propel the Bethesda native into an acclaimed principal dancer at New York City’s American Ballet Theatre (1985–2015).

“The very first ‘Nutcracker’ that I ever danced was when I made my debut with American Ballet Theatre [ABT] in 1985 with Baryshnikov’s production of ‘The Nutcracker,'” Kent said. “I had never danced it as a child, and it was a beautiful production. There were no children in this production, so all of the roles were danced by professional dancers. My first role was Party Scene Girl and a Snowflake.”

From there, she took her world-class skills on the road.

“I went from there to dance ‘Nutcrackers’ all over the country as the Sugar Plum Fairy,” Kent said. “[I did] various incarnations of ‘The Nutcracker’ at ABT, Kevin McKenzie’s production, then a second production. I’ve danced ‘Nutcracker’ in Maryland; in Chicago, in Lewisville, Texas, in Stamford, Connecticut, in California, at Indiana University for about 10 years, just tons and tons of places.”

Why does she keep coming back to this production?

“What resonates in every production of ‘Nutcracker’ is a beautiful, important relationship between the students, teachers and parents,” Kent said. “It’s really an investment of the entire community. It’s beautiful thing to see. A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into bringing it to life. The students put in so much of their hard work, and the parents get the children to all of those rehearsals, wait for them after every performance, help them with their makeup and help get them into their costumes.”

Kent herself feels like a proud parent sitting in the audience giving mini claps for her students.

“I think I need to be aware that people are watching me in the audience,” Kent joked. “Often times when the ballerina enters, I just clap because it’s the etiquette. And then just personal victories or maybe a segment of a dance that I knew the dancer was struggling with or working to accomplish certain finesse. So I just recognize it and I don’t need to disturb the whole audience. … I don’t want it to seem like … I’m planting applause. It’s a bit more just my connection to what’s happening on stage.”

Considering Kent’s sparkling resume, are The Washington Ballet dancers intimidated?

“Not intimidating at all! Inspirational,” said Luis Torres, who plays Drosselmeyer. “There is a fresh point of view, information that perhaps we haven’t gotten before. So it’s nice to have that experience and a new point of view, maybe considering new things. Even though we know this production, maybe there’s a hidden jewel within a production that they’re able to see by the time they’re looking at it.”

These fresh eyes combine with a tried-and-true presentation that’s become a D.C. holiday tradition. “The Nutcracker” premiered at Warner Theatre back in December 1961, playing as a traditional version of the ballet for many decades, before taking on a decidedly D.C. twist in the 21st century.

“Mr. Webre took the whole Americana theme and put it in the story of ‘The Nutcracker,'” Torres said.

Set in historic Georgetown in 1882. this production’s Nutcracker character is based on George Washington, The Rat King is King George III and the “Waltz of the Flowers” uses Cherry Blossoms along the Potomac River. You can also expect Valley Forge bunnies, colonial flags, the Anacostian Indian, and even the Washington Nationals Racing Presidents dancing in tutus on select nights.

“There’s so much just built in, that we all go: ‘Oh! That’s our city! That’s our town,” Kent said.

Beyond all the local historical references, you also get the same great music by Tchaikovsky:

“He created a score that emotes to the person hearing it,” Torres said. “There is no way you can listen to that music and [not] feel something. When you feel something and you see something that goes with that feeling, it’s just magical. It’s like hearing Christmas carols. Even though they’re so old, the music itself triggers a memory from your childhood or a family moment or a relationship, so I think Tchaikovsky had the magic of creating a score that emotes and creates memories when you hear it.”

Such a timeless score makes Kent’s job that much easier.

“The drama is so clear in the music,” Kent said. “That’s one of the things I encourage the dancers to do: attach their movement and their performance to the music, because it really speaks for itself. It usually starts off really calm and exquisite, then the crescendo, you can feel it building and building, and then it goes down and up. The drama and emotion is really built into the construction of the music and it’s evocative. … You can see it in your mind’s eye. It’s easy to tell a story with that score.”

With roughly 100 dancers per show — pulled from 540 dancers across the different casts — it’s quite the organized chaos backstage, as Yours Truly saw firsthand last year during a cameo as ambassador.

“Our scenery pieces are quite big and heavy, and a lot of students and professionals are backstage,” Torres said. “There’s a lot going on, especially in Act 1. Not only what you see on stage is choreographed, also behind stage you need to be careful and choreograph which way you’re running, which way the scenery is going. It’s quite an adventure. … Backstage at the Warner is very intimate.”

“That means small,” Kent added with a laugh. “It’s like the apartment ads when it says cozy!”

Cozy is perfect for this yearly tradition in a community welcoming back a hometown hero like Kent.

“Come on down!” Torres said. “Be part of our community ‘Nutcracker!'”

Check out the full conversation with Julie Kent and Luis Torres in the audio and video below:

February 21, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Julie Kent & Luis Torres (Full Interview) (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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