- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2000

It was one of those rare occasion when the audience was as beautiful as the dancers on stage. Children and more children, dressed in their Christmas best boys in velvet sailor suits, the girls easy to spot in matching red and green tartan frocks with shining locks pulled back in golden bows.

Even more remarkable at the Warner Theater on Sunday afternoon was the visible delight on the childrens' faces a joy that came not from video games or electronic toys, but from Fyodor Tchaikovsky's classic "The Nutcracker Suite," as performed by the youthful members of The Washington Ballet.

The children watched, eyes huge, hushed except for the crinkling of candy wrappers, as Baltimore's Casey Dalton took her turn on stage as the Wooden Doll, as Nathan Short fought in the role of the Nutcracker with the Mouse King, while Sugarplum Fairy Michelle Jimenez' dancing brought added grace to the magical score and breathtaking set.

There was more magic later at the Willard Inter-continental Hotel where 320 junior performing arts mavens got to meet the dancers, still in their costumes, at a tea just for kids that featured tiny peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an ice cream bar and gingerbread men for all.

"This tea is fun and it's a tradition the children love coming to the performance because they also love coming to the tea," said tea co-chair Deborah Ratner Salzberg, who accompanied her dancer daughter, Anna, age 14.

For Mrs. Salzberg, keeping children involved in the arts is a family tradition as well, and one that she's upheld through ten years of attendance at Washington Ballet performances.

"The arts are a very important part of the fabric of American society and I don't think we spend enough time encouraging our children to come to them," she said. "The tea is a fun way to get them involved."

Barbara Ferrara, Mrs. Salzberg's co-chairwoman, agreed. She said she worked on the event because raising money for the Washington School of Ballet is a goal important to her family as well.

"The children don't always play an outstanding role, but just being part of it is important to them," said Mrs. Ferrara, whose daughter Mia played the role of a big mouse this year. "It's a wonderful holiday celebration and I think it's another side of childrens' development that [the dancers] also recognize is important."

"They feel that it really leads to something concrete," she continued. "It's not just going to class every week and doing certain exercises. It leads to [an appreciation of dance] that could be a part of your life forever even if you never become a professional dancer.

And it's not only the children who are fascinated by this event. Angel Suarez, an Food and Drug Administration consumer safety officer, watched, rapt, from the audience for the seventh year in a row. This year, he had the extra pleasure of watching his 12-year-old daughter Anna, as she performed in her role as a "little mouse."

"The school is very strict about this," he said. "We have to arrive on time. It's almost like a contract. There are very rigid rules you have to follow. But it's great, because the kids are treated as professionals at this level."

Mr. Suarez said he understood rules accompany any project where excellence is required, and the Washington Ballet takes this event seriously. At $100 per ticket, it netted the company about $10,000 this year.

Despite the pricy ticket, first time attendee and Washington attorney Jenny Stenger thought it was worth it to bring her son James, 3*, but hopes the tradition will get a bit easier next year.

"He's still too young, I guess," she said ruefully after James kicked up a ruckus during the Sugar Plum fairy's solo. "I thought he would like it but then the snow started coming down and he just kept saying 'that's not real, that's not real!'"

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