The Nutcracker is one of those performances that bring “high art” down a peg. It is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a performance piece which challenges our minds, raises our brows or separates those “in-the-know” from anyone else. In fact, the Nutcracker, literally drizzled in saccharine sweetness, is easily consumable, mass-marketed ballet. It’s a ballet for the people—the big swarming mass of them who enter the theatre on toddling little feet, or giant fur coats, or hip pop art dresses. The Nutcracker is ballet without judgment— it is choreographed fun, dipped in candy sweets and sugar plums, topped off with snowflake confections and wrapped up in a ribbon of fantasy.
The Washington Ballet’s version of the Nutcracker is no different. It follows the story of little Clara as she receives her Nutcracker and travels to her dreamland , where she is entertained amongst the barrage of arabesques, leaps and pirouettes. It is here that the dancers give her a Christmas present– a visual blitzkrieg of twirls and confectionary indulgence.
The Washington Ballet, however, strays from the traditional Nutcracker in a way which is not-ill conceived but also at times disarming. By incorporating traditional Americana into their performance piece via a George Washington Nutcracker, Native American dancers, a staged Revolutionary War and a river boat, the performance stops being simply sugary-indulgence and becomes something slightly more constructed. As one reared on yearly viewings of the Nutcracker, I was temporarily in shock.
The Nutcracker has one overarching aim. It aims to transport you from your world, to that of Clara’s fantasy dreamland. Much like traditional television, the Nutcracker is meant for simple easy consumption. Confusing our childlike dreams by infusing them with images of historical America makes the consumption less easy to digest and as such produced my temporary shock. Rather than be only the “low-brow” ballet that audiences have come to love, this performance brings us in touch with other larger cultural, geographical and historical surroundings.
Upon further reflection, I began to think of the children and adults who frequent the ballet in Washington DC. For them, our history is on every corner, in every museum, and breathed into them by interactions with presidents, politicians and lobbyists. For a child growing up in DC, American culture is the stuff of their dreams. At this level, then the Washington Ballet has delved into the peculiar psyche of those who make DC their home. In this city, we are not fueled by candy coated indulgence and whimsical fairy tales. Instead, our dream worlds are infused with the tradition of America. As such, to transport Clara to a world ruled by history is to transport the little “Claras” in the audience to a world that they do in fact dream of. Therefore, saying good-bye to the sleigh and hello to the hot air balloon, shows not only the Washington Ballet’s acknowledgment of the low-brow nature of the ballet but also shows further its true embrace of the city to which it calls home.
In doing so, this ballet becomes exactly what is was intended to be— a fantasy world, with minimal pretension (it is after all the ballet…), where one feels both at home and pushed to a world they do dream of from the comfort of their own fluffy white cloud of a bed.
Pay special attention to the nuanced performances of the Maki Onuki and Sona Kharatian whose grace and poise stole away this audience member’s attention and threw in my face my theories, my ideas, and my story as I sat entranced by every flick of their wrist, raise of their eyes and delicate turns and lifts. For tickets, visit: http://www.washingtonballet.org/.