Washington Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ brings holiday tradition to DC’s Warner Theatre

The cast of Washington Ballet's "Nutcracker" performs at Warner Theatre. (Media 4/Theo Kossenas)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Washington Ballet's 'Nutcracker' (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — It just wouldn’t be Christmas in Washington without “The Nutcracker.”

Tchaikovsky’s iconic ballet has become a holiday tradition around the world, but especially in our nation’s capital with The Washington Ballet’s perennial performance at Warner Theatre.

“Finish your Christmas shopping, stop by ‘The Nutcracker,’ set the mood,” artistic director Julie Kent told WTOP. “It’s a great way to start the holiday season. … I just love hearing from the audience. When the Sugar Plum Fairy was dancing, the woman behind me kept saying, ‘She’s just like the ballerina in the jewelry box!’ That’s exactly the feeling that you want to inspire.”

Set on Christmas Eve in 1882, Clara and her family host a holiday party in their Georgetown mansion. When her mysterious godfather Mr. Drosselmeyer presents Clara with a nutcracker, she’s suddenly plunged into a magical world of the evil Rat King and lovely Sugar Plum Fairy.

“Tchaikovsky composed this music for this ballet,” Kent said. “So you close your eyes, you listen to the music, and you see the action. The steps are secondary, whether it’s [Marius] Petipa’s original choreography from the 1800s or this Washington-centric creation by Septime Webre, that’s a bit secondary to the incredible score that tells the story of ‘The Nutcracker.'”

This year marks Kent’s second “Nutcracker” since taking over The Washington Ballet.

“It’s very evident the work the dancers have put in all the ballets over the past year,” Kent said. “In the snowflake scene and the Waltz of the Flowers, you can see the precision and unison and relationships and line they learned in ‘Giselle’ and ‘Les Sylphides’ and ‘The Dream.’ Every performance you should see the work that’s been put into everything that’s preceded it.”

The cast features fresh faces such as Brittany Stone, who makes her Sugar Plum Fairy debut.

“We were working in rehearsal to find a softness with the Sugar Plum Fairy, because you have to be personable to the audience and relaxed like a princess,” Stone said. “This is my second year doing Washington Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker.’ I danced in Boston before coming here, so last year I had to learn all new choreography. It was hard at first to hear the same music and not do the choreography that I’d done for so long. This year is definitely more comfortable.”

On the flip side, the production also features veteran TWB dancers such as Corey Landolt.

“This is my 12th season dancing ‘The Nutcracker’ with The Washington Ballet — I’ve really danced most of the males roles,” Landolt said, as Kent joked, “Rat number 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6!”

All joking aside, this year Landolt plays both the Snow King and the Anacostian Indian.

“I enjoy dancing the Snow King,” Landolt said. “It’s a pas de deux with some solo dancing, sending Clara and the Prince to the Land of the Sweets. It’s a lot of fun. High energy. You’ve really gotta focus and bring your A-game for the pas then just kill it on your solos. … I love dancing the Anacostian Indian dance. It’s a beautiful, sensual pas. It’s long, it’s about 3 1/2 minutes long and it’s taxing, but it’s just really pretty when it’s well done. It just draws you in.”

The Anacostian Indian is one of the many D.C.-themed elements in this version.

“The party scene is your historic Georgetown mansion,” Landolt said. “The Land of the Sweets is a view of the Potomac. You can see some of the monuments, so it’s distinctly D.C. Our Waltz of the Flowers is the Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms, so you’re getting all of that D.C. flavor.”

“Audience members appreciate it a little more because they recognize the cherry blossoms and the different themes throughout,” Stone said. “It’s more connected in that way.”

Washington Nationals baseball fans might even see Teddy in a tutu.

“The Racing Presidents will be making their annual appearance,” Kent said. “Go Nats!”

Other special guests include ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser, FOX-5’s Erin Como, WUSA-9’s Lesli Foster, Councilman Jack Evans and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton. You’ll also recognize plenty of familiar faces from the dance company itself due to annual appearances.

“Olivia Dugan has been a student at the school since she was 5,” Kent said. “To see her progress through all the roles: party child, clown, snowflake, mouse and Clara this year! It’s a special part of [our] legacy: how many students were affected by this experience, performing in the production and inspired in the audience. It’s the hook that draws a lot of us into dance.”

Indeed, “The Nutcracker” was the first ballet many dancers ever saw in their hometowns.

“‘Nutcracker’ is such an important ballet because it’s how many of us got our start,” Landolt said. “The first ballet I saw was when I was 5; I saw the local ‘Nutcracker.’ That’s probably the same for the majority of professional dancers. It’s the first one we saw. It feels great to pay it forward, return it, inspire these kids and show them magic. It leads them on the same path.”

Among the 500 child performers, there’s one youth dancer that’s extra close to Kent’s heart.

“I have the distinction of being a ‘Nutcracker’ parent this year,” Kent said with a smile. “My daughter is [in] the party scene. Her name is Josephine Barbee — you heard it here first!”

Click here for details. Listen below for our full chat with Julie Kent, Brittany Stone & Corey Landolt:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the 'Nutcracker' cast (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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