- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 11, 2003

As Christmas entertainment, “The Nutcracker” is a natural — from its radiant

Tchaikovsky score to its comforting sense of tradition during a season when tradition is what many are looking for.

The feeling of continuity is embedded in the opening scene where we witness a holiday party full of formal manners: a Christmas ritual that’s been celebrated for years, even for generations.

There’s also the tradition we, ourselves, are establishing with our attendance: taking eager youngsters to “The Nutcracker” and, perhaps, reliving childhood memories of the ballet.

And there’s the tradition of the ballet itself, with a history that spans three centuries, from its first performance in czarist Russia in 1892.

George Balanchine, who danced in the ballet as a child in Russia, staged his own superb “Nutcracker” for his New York City Ballet almost 50 years ago, a version seen on television in the ‘50s that sparked the massive “Nutcracker” rage in this country. In the ‘90s, a moderately successful film was also made and shown commercially.

New versions of the ballet have cropped up each year, including Rudolf Nureyev’s decidedly Freudian staging. The late Robert Joffrey gave a picture-postcard look to his Victorian American setting.

Mark Morris, still using the Tchaikovsky score, chose a comic book setting for his iconoclastic ballet and called it, “The Hard Nut,” while Donald Byrd choreographed to Duke Ellington’s jazz take on Tchaikovsky’s score for “The Harlem Nutcracker.”

This month, three major versions of the ballet can be seen here.

Leading off with three weeks of performances beginning tonight at the Warner Theatre is the grand Washington tradition of Mary Day’s “Nutcracker.” The ballet had its premiere in the District 42 years ago at Constitution Hall. In the early days, the performance was accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra, with friends and parents of the Washington Ballet School pressed into service as guests during Miss Day’s charming first-act party scene.

Today, the Washington Ballet, the professional company Miss Day founded, plays the major dancing roles but her students still appear in the charming solos she devised for mice, toy soldiers and dancing stars.

In her long and distinguished career as teacher and director, Miss Day has groomed exceptional dancers and performers; most of them had their first stage experience in her “Nutcracker.”

Kevin MacKenzie, now artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, played Herr Drosselmeyer’s young nephew. American Ballet Theatre ballerina Amanda McKerrow was the Sugar Plum Fairy — and, as a student in the school, Chelsea Clinton danced the role of a favorite aunt. Miss Day created the role of the Christmas Tree Star for the talented 13-year-old dancer Marianna Tcherkassky, who later went on to dance Clara opposite Mikhail Baryshnikov at the premiere of his “Nutcracker.”

Through the years, hundreds of children experienced the thrill of performing in Miss Day’s “Nutcracker,” and thousands more watched as dolls come to life, mice battle toy soldiers, a Christmas tree grows and flowers waltz when they first savored the magic of live theater.

Miss Day, who retired as director of the Washington Ballet a few years ago, has announced she soon will retire as director of the Washington School of Ballet that she co-founded with the late Lisa Gardiner. For more than four decades, she has been grooming students in their roles, sewing costumes in a pinch and guiding every aspect of the ballet to make it stage-ready.

Her “Nutcracker” has been one of Washington’s longest-running and happiest rituals.

Two other “Nutcrackers” scheduled for this holiday season are lavishly elaborate productions.

The Kirov Ballet, the company where “The Nutcracker” was created, brings a decidedly different version of this 1892 ballet when it kicks off a week-long engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Dec. 23.

In recent appearances here, this distinguished company has shown two carefully remounted stagings of its 19th century treasures — “The Sleeping Beauty” and the Shades scene from “La Bayadere.”

The new “Nutcracker” is a different matter, a total reworking of the original version planned by Marius Petipa and choreographed by Lev Ivanov.

The star of the show appears to be Mihail Chemiakin, credited with adapting the libretto and designing the entire production including the costumes and towering sets. Choreography is by a relative unknown, Kirill Simonov.

Mr. Chemiakin seems to be more influenced by the dark undertones of the original “Nutcracker” tale by E.T.A. Hoffman than the lilting sounds of Tchaikovsky’s music.

A few examples: Among the offbeat characters and occurrences in the Kirov’s “Nutcracker” are “the souls of dead children,” “Napoleon, the Commander of the Rat Army” — and, in the Kingdom of Sweets, doctors ready to pull rotten teeth. All these characters perform in front of towering stage sets where a man’s shoe is big enough to hide in.

A more traditional version of the ballet, however, with England’s Royal Ballet comes to television on Christmas Eve as part of PBS’ acclaimed “Great Performances” series. The program will air at 8 p.m. and midnight on WETA (Channel 26).

New prominence is given to the Herr Drosselmeyer role, the mysterious Christmas guest who brings the nutcracker doll to the little heroine Clara (or Masha in some versions). He is played by Anthony Dowell, the Royal’s dashing male star who was director of the company when the film was made a few years ago.

At first, his commanding stage presence seems a plus, but eventually he looks a little dotty, swirling a very large silken turquoise cape with endless flourishes. The company dances pleasantly, but the slow tempo drains the life out of the dancing sequences.

For many “Nutcracker” fans, the appeal of the ballet, in addition to the warmth of its holiday celebration, comes down to its enchanting music and beautiful dancing. A glimpse of that pleasure was seen earlier this month when the Suzanne Farrell Ballet breezed through Balanchine’s ravishing choreography for the “Tempo di Valse” from his “Nutcracker.”

Ballerina Violette Verdy, who has danced in and staged “The Nutcracker” over her long career, sums up the ballet’s spell best when she says, “The key is Drosselmeyer. It is he who introduces little Clara to the world of beauty and the power of imagination. It is he who awakens her inner life.”

WHAT: “The Nutcracker” staged by the Washington Ballet

WHEN: Today through Dec. 28

WHERE: Warner Theatre, 13th and E streets NW

TICKETS: $24 to $59

PHONE: 202/432-7328

WHAT: “The Nutcracker” staged by the Kirov Ballet

WHEN: Dec. 23 and Dec. 25 to Dec. 28 at 7:30 p.m.; and Dec. 27 and Dec. 28 at 1:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW

TICKETS: $45 to $110

PHONE: 202/467-4600

WHAT: “The Nutcracker,” staged by the Royal Ballet

WHEN: Dec. 24 at 8 p.m. and midnight

WHERE: WETA-TV Channel 26

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