WASHINGTON, D.C. – “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is a tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German writer who specialized in early fantasy fiction and who later influenced Edgar Allan Poe.
As originally written, Hoffmann’s “Nutcracker” is a rather dark work, presenting a porous border between everyday reality and the unpredictable, and sometimes frightening, world of the supernatural.
Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky transformed Hoffmann’s complex work into the charming ballet which has become a Euro-American Christmas tradition.
Many theatre companies are currently performing this work this December in the Washington metropolitan area, and we had the pleasure to enjoy a performance by the Washington Ballet at the Warner Theatre.
Just as Tchaikovsky turned Hoffmann’s tale into a showcase of exotic rhythms and tonal color, choreographer Septime Webre has adapted the “Nutcracker Ballet” into something wonderfully new.
No longer is the setting in Europe, but the United States – more specifically, in an 1882 Georgetown mansion. Additional American references abound. To cite one example, the Arabian Dance is no longer Middle Eastern but now a sensual dance between a Native American/American Indian (Anacostian, the notes say) maiden and her brave.
Victoria Arrea is outstanding as the maiden, dancing with exquisite expressiveness. Another standout is the talented Esmiana Jani, who delightfully portrays the fairy snow queen. (Fairness requires us to mention that sometimes different performers appear on different nights, but in our experience- Washington Ballet’s performers are uniformly excellent.)
In a subtle nod to American history, the evil mice wear the red coats of the British during the American War of Independence.
In contrast, Clara’s come-to-life nutcracker and his noble soldiers wear blue coats, the color of the uniforms of the American colonists fighting for independence. It is amplified using images of George Washington here and there.
In another adaptation to the American cultural context, the heroine at one point flies off in a hot air balloon, à la the final color scene from “The Wizard of Oz.” The scenery design of Peter Horne and the costume design of Judanna Lynn are both exquisite. The scenery and costuming work especially well together, especially in a scene were the clowns of “Mother Barnum” emerge from a summer carousel.
And then there are the dancers dressed in Davy Crocket/Daniel Boone-style raccoon hats! Bringing us back to a Nation’s Capital focal point, to the very edge of the Tidal Basin, the “Waltz of the Flowers” has become spun into the “Waltz of the Cherry Blossoms.”
While purists may question this reimagining of the classic “Nutcracker” ballet, it is the opinion of this reviewer that the production is mostly successful in retaining Tchaikovksy’s – and Hoffmann’s – celebration of the imagination and the awakening of one’s own child-like wonder.
One problem with a transfer of the action to the United States is that 1882 upper-class Georgetown settings and costumes do not always look very different from what a Victorian British, Wilhelmine German or Czarist Russian costumed setting might have resembled. Another issue is that it is unclear whether or not Americans of 1882 opened their presents on Christmas Eve like their European counterparts; American Christmas customs during this time were evolving, with many historians now believing that the first Christmas tree in the White House appeared in 1889.
The Warner Theatre’s “Nutcracker” has many children performing, at times as mushrooms, animals and toy soldiers.
That lends the production a certain charm, and Hoffmann’s novella is all about Christmas through the eyes of children.
However, using adult performers in some of these roles might have provided greater consistency, as adults simply have greater performance experience than children, even when they possess the same level of talent.
Overall, though, this production is well-recommended for all who love Tchaikovsky’s Christmas ballet, and it is a warm reminder that it is possible to take a ballet with a fixed plot and reinterpret it successfully for different times and places.
The current interpretation also works because it recognizes and plays to the architectural strengths of the gold-gilded 1920s Warner Theatre. Always beautiful, this space is now luxuriously decorated with beautiful snowy exteriors, warm Christmas interiors and an enormous hand-painted Christmas tree. A back mural of a river and slightly exotic classical architecture worked well, too. Such themes are continued in the lobby, where nutcracker dolls and Victorian-style Christmas decorations are sold.
Septime Webre’s production of “The Nutcracker,” now in its fifteenth season, runs this year through Dec. 28.