- The Washington Times - Friday, December 1, 2006

Many years ago, the late, great ballerina Alexandra Danilova told me of a chance encounter she had had with George Balanchine on a snowy winter street in Manhattan. The two had escaped from Russia together after the Revolution and she briefly had been his common-law wife.

“Choura,” the celebrated choreographer asked her, speaking of their young days dancing in St. Petersburg, “do you remember the Christmas tree in ‘Nutcracker’? Wasn’t that the biggest tree in the world?”

Mr. Balanchine was working on his own staging of the ballet at the time and marvelously captured that childhood sense of awe in his “Nutcracker,” the most inspired of the hundreds of versions that flood stages across the country each holiday season.

One memorable moment in Mr. Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” crystallizes a child’s wonder and delight: As Tchaikovsky’s music swells to a climax, the scenery flies into the wings, leaving the stage bare except for a small child in a white nightgown looking up at the glistening “biggest tree in the world.”

To see that wonder-filled moment requires a trip to New York, where the New York City Ballet performs Mr. Balanchine’s “Nutcracker” yearly — or a journey to Philadelphia or Miami, where those cities’ ballet companies stage the Balanchine version.

“Nutcracker” is brimful of myriad delights — the radiant Tchaikovsky score, the warm Christmas party, the mysterious/comical Herr Drosselmeyer, the mock-scary battle with the mice, the swirling snow scene, the entertaining divertissements that follow. Add to that the story of a young girl (sometimes called Clara, sometimes Maria) encountering her first romantic feelings, a rite of passage given gentle emphasis in some versions, downright Freudian in others.

Some companies, to spice things up, have begun adding local color to their productions — Helgi Tomasson’s sumptuous $3.5 million production for the San Francisco Ballet sets the opening scene in that city circa 1915; the Pittsburgh Ballet’s $2 million production (“Nutcracker” is big business) features turn-of-the-century local landmarks; Artistic Director Terrence Orr will bring this version to Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre later this month.

The Kennedy Center always begins the season with the early arrival of an imported “Nutcracker.” This year, it was the Joffrey Ballet’s turn again, playing right in the middle of Thanksgiving week. It was Mr. Joffrey’s last ballet, and the charm of the 19-year-old production is still intact.

Each of three other productions yet to come has special resonance.

The oldest is the Olney Ballet Theatre’s revival of the 40-year-old “Nutcracker” by the late Mary Day, founder of the Washington Ballet. This gently sparkling version has introduced the ballet to more Washingtonians than any other over the years and has given their moment onstage to such students as Amanda McKerrow, Kevin McKenzie and Chelsea Clinton.

The new production of this work is being staged by Patricia Berrend, who danced in Miss Day’s ballet and became its repetiteur. Eighty young cast members will be joined by nine professional guest artists. The 13 performances will be at the Olney Theatre Center Dec. 8 through 23; $15 to $29; 301/924-3400.

A special charmer is Maryland Youth Ballet’s “Nutcracker,” staged by Michelle Lees and in its 16th year. Its intimate setting makes it particularly appropriate for young viewers, and its freshness, warm humor and first-rate dancing combine with a sense of community (seasoned older dancers such as Alvin Mayes show up as guests at the party) to give it a homey appeal.

Two particular draws are mime Mark Jaster in the role of the magical Herr Drosselmeyer and the final performances with the company of the up-and-coming Mark Giragosian, who dances the Nutcracker Prince. The young dancer, who has won a handful of national and international prizes, including the Princess Grace Award, will be leaving to join a major company next year.

MYB will dance 11 performances at the Robert E. Parilla Performing Arts Center on Montgomery College’s Rockville campus Dec. 22 and 23 and Dec. 26 through 30. Montgomery College, Rockville Campus; $20 to $29.50.

The grandest, most elaborate of them all, and one with probably the most appeal to the hyperkinetic MTV generation, is the Washington Ballet’s rollicking “Nutcracker” at the Warner Theatre Dec. 7 through 23. Director Septime Webre, also fiddling with the locale, sets its second act in the midst of the capital’s blooming cherry blossoms.

His production, cut short last year by a strike, is back on track with its full lineup of the company’s star dancers and a superabundance of little ones in a range of roles from mushrooms to tiny acrobats. My favorite scene boasts a contingent of young soldiers who march with dazzlingly sharp precision.

Americana reigns in this version with characters including George Washington and the Continental Army. Gone are dances for Arabian coffee and three bounding Russian Cossacks. In their place are American Indians and a frontiersman in a coonskin cap.

The Washington Ballet is at the Warner Theatre for 19 performances Dec. 7 through 23; 202/397-SEAT; $29 to $175.

A different take on “Nutcracker” for young children is being offered by the American Dance Institute in Rockville. Director Michael Bjerknes has arranged a truncated version of the ballet and also mounted an interactive program for children to experience the fun of the ballet, Dec. 9 and 10. Call 301/984-3003 for more information.

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