- The Washington Times - Friday, November 28, 2008

The darkest, shortest days of the year are coming down the pike and, as always, are bringing with them the need to seek good cheer and jollity. Dance, with its vigor and grace, is a natural for bringing a lift to the spirits; soon it will bound onstage to brighten the holiday scene.

Kicking off the season with a special fillip this year is “Navidad Flamenca,” a “Nutcracker”-style Christmas treat spoken in the language of flamenco. This Sunday, the New York-based Spanish dance company Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana, swirls into the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda for two performances at 4 and 8 p.m.

Elsewhere, the time-honored “Nutcracker” tale leads the seasonal celebrations with its enchanting score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky and a history dating to its 1892 premiere in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Here in America, the most celebrated mounting of Tchaikovsky’s wonder-filled score is George Balanchine’s version. Created for his New York City Ballet more than 50 years ago, it’s still going strong, years and miles away from the Russian version he danced as a child in St. Petersburg.

When Alexandra Danilova (one of Balanchine’s five ballerina wives) came to Washington many years ago to supervise a production of “The Nutcracker,” she told me that she had run into the choreographer on a New York city street at the time he had been creating his “Nutcracker.” Snow was drifting down, and Mr. Balanchine said to her, “Choura, do you remember the tree that grew onstage when we danced in ‘Nutcracker’ in Russia - wasn’t that the biggest tree you ever saw?”

Master that he was, Mr. Balanchine captured that sense of childlike wonder in his enchanting staging of the ballet. As the little heroine Clara stands alone onstage looking up at the glittering Christmas tree, all the scenery — doors, windows, everything — flies off into the wings and the tree grows to mythic size as little Clara gazes up at it, while Tchaikovsky’s music swells to a climax - one of the great stage moments of all time.

Here in the District, we have two major professional “Nutcrackers” appearing annually as well as several smaller versions with advanced student dancers and local charm.

Septime Webre, the Washington Ballet’s energetic director, created his Washington-flavored “Nutcracker.” Now celebrating its fifth year, it casts George Washington as the Nutcracker and King George III as the Rat King. The company appears at the Warner Theatre Dec. 11 through Dec. 28, preceded by performances at THEARC Thursday through Saturday.

Meanwhile, at the Kennedy Center, director Michael M. Kaiser brings in a “Nutcracker” from a major company every season, usually rotating between Kevin McKenzie’s version for American Ballet Theatre (last year) and (this year) Robert Joffrey’s charmingly nostalgic production set in Victorian-era America, scheduled for Dec. 11 through Dec. 14 at the Opera House.

There are more modest “Nutcrackers,” too.

Among them:

• For young children, one happy introduction to the holiday is Michelle Lees’ cozy staging for the Maryland Youth Ballet, performing at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center on the Montgomery College Rockville campus Dec. 19 through Dec. 28. Earlier in the month at the same venue, “The Nutcracker” will be performed by the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre (next Friday through Sunday and Dec. 12 through Dec. 14).

• The late Mary Day, founder-director of the Washington Ballet and School, created a long-running version of “Nutcracker” now being performed by Olney Ballet Theatre. The production is directed by Patricia Berrend, a former faculty member at Miss Day’s school. Performances are Dec. 12 through Dec. 27.

A holiday tradition of more recent vintage is Kwanzaa.

Recently enriched by the contribution of hip-hop artists, the black American celebration was created in the 1960s by scholar-activist Maulana Karenga and inspired by African harvest festivals. The observance (Dec. 26 through Jan. 1) has also been celebrated on film in “The Black Candle,” narrated by poet-author Maya Angelou and released on DVD in September.

On Dec. 20, the Kwanzaa Celebration at the Atlas Performing Arts Center will include Coyaba Dance Theater and students from Dance Place youth and adult African dance classes.

Also scheduled: A Kwanzaa celebration with African performance troupes featuring dance, drumming, traditional music and storytelling, will take place at Prince George’s Publick Playhouse, Dec. 27.

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