Washington Ballet gives ‘Nutcracker’ a local twist

WASHINGTON — You’ve heard the myth of George Washington’s wooden teeth, just like you’ve heard the music from Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker.”

Now, the Washington Ballet is combining both, putting local twists on the timeless story through Dec. 28 at the Warner Theatre.

Here, the Nutcracker is a wooden doll of George Washington that comes alive to save Clara from the Rat King and his rat army of British Redcoats.

“I’m a method actor, so I actually took out my teeth and replaced them with wooden stakes for my role,” dancer Marshall Whiteley cracked to WTOP.

All joking aside, the local history certainly comes alive. Audiences can expect appearances by Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglas, Harriet Tubman, the Anacostia Indians and other local figures.

“We’ll also be doing some fun celebrity walk-on roles, so make sure you keep your eye out for some local heroes and some figureheads from around the area to join us on stage,” says Scott Greenberg, public relations and publications manager for the Washington Ballet.

Greenberg didn’t want to spoil the surprises, but he gave WTOP one little nugget.

“I can confirm that we will be having the Washington Nationals racing presidents joining us on stage this year,” Greenberg says. “They’re such goofballs, and to have them on stage with us trying to dance ballet, is really something hilarious and special to see.”

Unless you’ve been living under a rock — or a sugar plum — you know the story of Clara, who receives a Nutcracker from her uncle, sparking a fantastical coming-of-age journey on Christmas Eve.

“I think it allows for an imagination on both the level of child and adult,” Greenberg says. “When you sit down, you’re taken into another world, especially with the Washington Ballet. We have such lush costume and set design that it really is an other-worldly experience.”

Those set designs are fun for the audience and the performers.

“(As a dancer) if you don’t want to be found in rehearsal by someone who has a correction for you, you can always hide,” Whiteley jokes. “But it makes it a really fun experience for the audience, I feel. At one point during the battle scene, as the tree rises, three huge rats literally pop out of the tree. It’s a simple enough set design, but from the audience’s perspective, there’s a lot of magic going on.”

Co-star Isabel Deyo interacts with multiple sets due to her variety of roles, playing a snowflake, a flower, a butterfly, a cardinal, a maid and the wife to Whiteley’s military husband. Her favorite set design is the box that houses the title doll.

“It’s really cool how it opens,” she says. “It’s actually like a Humpty Dumpty egg.”

If the visuals don’t grab you, Tchaikovsky’s eternally recognizable music will.

“It gets you in the holiday spirit immediately,” Greenberg says. “It’s such a familiar, inherent, wonderful music for the holiday season.”

The songs are beloved even by those who have never seen “The Nutcracker.”

“It’s the music you hear on ads for Christmas that tell you, ‘Oh, it’s Christmas time,'” Deyo says.

Even if you’ve seen the show dozens of times, this year is an extra-special convergence of anniversaries. It’s the 70th anniversary for the Washington Ballet, the 10th anniversary of “The Nutcracker” at Warner Theatre and the 15th year of Septime Webre choreographing the show.

Webre’s veteran chops make for demanding, yet rewarding, productions.

“He will choreograph and re-choreograph and re-choreograph something,” Whiteley says. “He has more energy than anybody I’ve ever met in my life. He is a perfectionist. He is a consummate artist. And he is a little bit crazy, in a good way, and it comes across on stage, and the audience always has a good time when they see his work.”

“When you go to a rehearsal with Septime, you can always count on it having a complete fresh and new take on what you’ve been doing a long time,” Deyo says. “For ‘Nutcracker’ that’s especially helpful because we do so many shows.”

Indeed, it’s a long way to the top if you wanna ballet.

Whiteley grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska, did most of his training in San Diego, then came to the Washington Ballet on scholarship two and half years ago, before graduating into the studio company.

Deyo grew up in San Luis Obispo, a small town on the Central Coast of California. She studied at the North Carolina School of the Arts for a year, before heading to New York City to dance at the American Ballet Theatre. This is her first year with the Washington Ballet.

“I went to an open audition along with like 200 other people, heard back a couple of weeks later and decided to come,” Deyo says.

Even once you’ve arrived at the Washington Ballet, it’s an intensive full-time gig. Whiteley and Deyo say they work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday every week.

“So much choreography is being thrown at you at such a constant rate that you never get a break,” Deyo says. “You go home and you’re thinking about the choreography, and you wake up and you learn something new and you have to think of that on top of it. It’s just constant.”

The physical demands can also be gruesome.

“You have surface pain on your feet from point shoes, but then your muscles get sore from moving constantly all day. It’s not just your feet or your legs; it’ll be your arms, and then sometimes your fingers will hurt from doing something. It’s definitely full-body.”

Whiteley says the dual nature of ballet — acting and dancing — makes for an even bigger challenge.

“While we’re extremely athletic in our careers, we have to be actors at the same time,” Whiteley says. “Every step of choreography that we learn, we also have to attach a feeling or an emotion or an intention to it, and that can really be a drain on the soul, if you will.”

Still, they say the hard work is worth it for the thrill of pleasing the audience.

“The minute the curtain rises and you hear the audience … that general gasp of excitement because they see this beautiful set design with these dancers that are just phenomenal at their technique, it’s truly something special,” Greenberg says. “It’s entertainment from minute one until its over.”

The ballet is holding a special Military Appreciation Day on Wednesday, Dec. 10, at 7 p.m. There’s also a Family Day, Girl Scouts Night and other novelty nights. For more information, visit the Washington Ballet website.

“It’s a great tradition because it incorporates the whole family,” Deyo says. “For adults, it brings you back to when you were a little kid, because most people go to ‘The Nutcracker’ when they’re really young, so it’s a great way to include the whole family.”

Click below to listen to classic music from “The Nutcracker”

The Nutcracker Suite

“The March”

“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”

“Candy Cane”

“Waltz of the Flowers”

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