- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

The first version of “The Nutcracker” that Septime Webre saw was in his own head. Before he ever watched the ballet onstage, he was enchanted by the Tchaikovsky music and burned to dance to it. “I grew up with an album of ‘The Nutcracker,’ ” Mr. Webre says. “We played it at home throughout the whole season. Even though I’d never had a lesson and years before I saw it onstage, I’d already choreographed my own production with my brothers and my sister, and we danced it around the house.”

From the acorn of such humble beginnings has grown the mighty oak of his lavish million-dollar “Nutcracker,” which will have its world premiere danced by the Washington Ballet on Friday at the Warner Theatre.

Its scale is large and ambitious. More than 200 costumes have been created during the past 11/2 years in seven workshops across the United States. Boots were custom-made in Italy, the nutcracker head and horses in England and flower headpieces in Russia.

In addition to the members of the Washington Ballet, 200 children are scheduled to dance — 75 at each performance — plus occasional cameos by lawyer Vernon Jordan (as Frederick Douglass) and others.

Although Mr. Webre is peppering his “Nutcracker” with references to such American historical icons as Betsy Ross and George Washington, he insists that he wants to focus first and foremost on the little girl Clara — “to tell the intimate story of a young girl coming of age.”

“That’s what will ultimately make the production successful,” he says.

Mr. Webre aimed to challenge his dancers classically and to create roles that would develop the training of children enrolled in the company’s school (and also spotlight the children in the DanceDC outreach program).

He also wanted to create a work that would not only be “unique” and have “great visual impact,” but also possess “all the qualities needed to become a tradition.”

In addition to attaining its artistic goals, the new production’s success is also vital to the company’s financial health. “Somewhere under 50,000 people will see ‘Nutcracker,’ this year, and we’re expecting to gross about $11/2 million,” Mr. Webre says. “Our annual budget is about $6 million; about $3 million of that is earned, so about 50 percent our earned income is from ‘Nutcracker.’ ”

Fund raising for the new production began almost two years ago. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Webre sought out his artistic collaborators — scenic designer Peter Horne and costume designer Judanna Lynn, whose costumes for the historical figures Mr. Webre has brought in include George Washington, Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin.

Even though this is Ms. Lynn’s third major “Nutcracker” and even though she has been working on the costumes “seven days a week, 16 hours a day” over the past few months, her enthusiasm remains intact.

“The fun thing about ‘Nutcracker’ is working with these children — they’re always so excited and responsive to things that are beautiful,” she says.

The new “Nutcracker” is already a major experience for its cast of hundreds, from the most junior members to seasoned performers.

Michele Jimenez, who will dance the shimmering Sugar Plum Fairy on opening night, came from the Dominican Republic six years ago to train at the school. While still a student, she performed as a corps member in “The Nutcracker.”

From these beginnings, she has grown into the company’s reigning ballerina. In addition to the Sugar Plum Fairy, she is dancing four other parts during the season’s run.

“I’m also doing Snow Queen; Dew Drop; and a new role, Anacostia Indian — it’s a pas de deux I do with Runqiao Du that’s pretty athletic. And I get to perform Clara’s Mum.”

“I’ve danced with the company for more than a quarter of a century and done virtually every male role in ‘Nutcracker,’ ” says John Goding, a charter member of the Washington Ballet.

“For the past six years, I’ve been dancing Drosselmeyer, and hopefully this time his role will make more sense. In the beginning, I’m seen in my workshop working on marionettes, setting up the idea of me being a magician, so when I come to the party bringing marionettes, you know who I am.”

The youngest dancer onstage opening night will be 5-year-old Natalya Butchko. She is present for most of the first act, and she has a lot to do. “I cry,” she says with a giggle at the thought, “and I dance with my friends, and when Clara puts her nutcracker to sleep, we try to put our dolls to sleep.

“I want to be a dancer when I grow up, like Michele,” she says, referring to Miss Jimenez, who sometimes takes on the role of her mother.

Clara’s mischievous brother, Fritz, is being played by 7-year-old Timothee Courouble, who began his dancing career at the Washington Ballet two years ago as a bumblebee in “Cinderella.”

“He was one of the children in our DanceDC program,” Mr. Webre notes, “and he stuck with it. Now he’s taking classes at our school three times a week.”

“Fritz tries to break his sister’s nutcracker. I like playing a mean person,” Timothee says with relish. “Then in the second act, I’m a Chinese fisherman, and I catch a fish.”

For 42, years Washington audiences young and old have been delighted and stirred by founder Mary Day’s “Nutcracker.”

By mounting his own production, Mr. Webre has put his lasting stamp on the face of the Washington Ballet, embarking on an ambitious chapter in the company’s history.

WHAT: Washington Ballet’s new production of “The Nutcracker”

WHEN: Thursday through Dec. 26

WHERE: Warner Theatre, 13th and E streets NW

TICKETS: $25 to $69

PHONE: 202/397-SEAT

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