WASHINGTON — It’s impossible to imagine Christmas in D.C. without “The Nutcracker.”
The Washington Ballet is celebrating its 15th anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s iconic production, bringing the annual holiday tradition to the historic Warner Theatre now through Dec. 28.
“It will really feel like the holidays once you’ve seen ‘The Nutcracker,'” Artistic Director and world renowned ballerina Julie Kent told WTOP. “We’re excited to celebrate it and give thanks to all of the people over all of the years who have both supported it and been a part of it.”
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.
“It’s so much about Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score,” Kent said. “The music is so evocative of the holidays. It really brings to mind so many memories that you may have of sharing those performances with loved ones, family, friends, children, grandparents. It’s one of the great ballets that has transcended from ballet culture to popular culture, so it’s really become a part of everyone’s life. We’re really excited to share this really charming, D.C.-centric production.”
Dominican dancer Alexa Torres performs the lead role of Clara for the second straight year.
“Even last year, I felt very comfortable in the role,” Torres told WTOP. “Every time I did it, I was being someone else. I played around with it a lot. … Every time I went in for the party, the very first scene, I was always like, ‘How does Clara feel today?’ There were days I wanted to be more of a mischievous Clara, then days when I was very dreamy and curious to see what was happening. Going in with that story in my head has really helped me develop the character.”
She also plays Lady Liberty, a Cardinal, a Spanish dancer, a Cherry Blossom and a Snow Flake.
“What makes the Snow Flake so special in this production is that it’s very fast movement and it’s so beautiful,” Torres said. “But for the dancers it’s very, very challenging to all be together and to form good formations. It’s so fast. It’s really sped up, but it’s really beautiful to watch.”
“It’s a very demanding role,” Kent added. “The ladies are jumping constantly for about five minutes. There’s 16 of them, they have to stay in line, and they have to be together.”
Georgia native Landry Ridener will dance the villainous role of the Rat King, along with a number of supporting roles, including a father in the party scene and The Frontiersman.
“Frontier is one of my favorites,” Ridener told WTOP. “Frontier is a high-energy piece. There’s a ton of jumping involved, a ton of excitement. Whenever you go on, you always feel super pumped and ready to dance. I find it’s a crowd pleaser as well. Every guy enjoys showing off!”
“It’s a virtuoso role,” Kent added.
He also plays the zany role of Mother Barnum, a colorful circus send-up of Barnum & Bailey.
“When you’re playing Mother Barnum you’re on top of this giant carousel,” Ridener said. “You’re wheeled out and the entire time the dance is going on there’s little clowns beneath you dancing and having fun. Your job is to accent what they’re doing and point toward certain dancers, especially the littlest clown we have. … You have a lot more freedom of expression.”
Unlike other “Nutcracker” productions around the country, this version is very D.C.-centric.
“It opens in a Georgetown mansion,” Kent said. “We have Lady Liberty, we have John Paul Jones, The Nutcracker is George Washington, the Rat King is King George, the soldiers are Revolutionary War soldiers, there’s a Norman Rockwell reference in there with the bunnies, we have the Anacostian Indian [and] the Waltz of the Flowers are D.C. Cherry Blossoms.”
Along the way, keep an eye out for special guests, including the Washington Nationals Racing Presidents and the Washington Redskins’ Vernon Davis, who appeared on Tuesday night.
It all culminates in the grand pas de deux featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier.
“Beautiful music, beautiful dancing, a real culmination of the whole performance,” Kent said.
As the curtain drops, you’ll see a final treat as Dosselmeyer twirls a miniature hot-air balloon.
“Clara leaves like Dorothy in ‘The Wizard of Oz,'” Kent said with a smile.
It’s a nice final touch by Septime Webre, who stepped down in 2016 and handed the artistic director reins to Kent, who grew up in Bethesda before dominating American Ballet Theatre.
“My very first ‘Nutcracker’ was with Mikhail Baryshnikov at ABT,” Kent said. “I was a junior at Churchill High School, I auditioned for Baryshnikov [and] the rest is history. I stayed in New York for 30 years until I came back here. During that time, I danced many other ‘Nutcracker’ productions both at ABT and around the country. … That was a great pleasure to go and see the community that develops around ‘Nutcracker’ in every city. … I think ‘The Nutcracker’ at The Washington Ballet is a really beautiful reflection of the wonderful community [here].”
Here’s to another 15 years of Sugar Plum Fairies dancing in our heads.
Find more details on the Washington Ballet website. Listen to our full conversation below: