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The chaos hits full throttle. Backstage, ballet master Michele Jimenez is informed that a child may have peed at center stage. Sure enough, there’s a puddle in the center of the stage. The littlest snow angels, clad in shimmering blue dresses with matching halos, are yelling at every dancer that passes by, “Good job breaking a leg!” and have to be shushed. Then, half of them go the wrong way and need to be ushered back together. The rats have run amok.
This is just the first act of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famed 125-year-old holiday ballet, The Nutcracker, now playing at The Warner Theatre. For some, it is the only ballet they will ever see. Former Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre’s fast-paced version is tailored specially to the District, complete with butterfly and frontier girls, a Georgetown mansion, cherry blossoms, George Washington, and Frederick Douglass.
“The Nutcracker is a unique experience because in each production we have 80 to 100 children,” says current artistic director and American Ballet Theatre icon Julie Kent. “When you have that amount of energy, you have such a cadre of people rushing back and forth. The kids love it.” Kent is a Nutcracker mom this year for the first time. Her 8-year-old daughter Josephine is in the opening party scene.
It’s hard to quantify the incredible work that goes into the Webre-choreographed production, which the Washington Ballet has been performing annually since 2004. It requires more bodies and more props than any other ballet the company puts on. And the work begins long before the show’s run. In early November, rehearsals commence at the company’s Cleveland Park office while men carry the massive stage props that crowd the halls to big trucks. Large cardboard boxes, one for an onstage puppet show and others for the story’s Rat King, are on their way to THEARC in Anacostia, where the first few shows will be held before the production hits the Warner Theatre in December.
The rehearsals are huge, each with more than 40 dancers varying in age and experience—but no small children—in a hot room filled with the smell of sweat. There, the company dancers soar. EunWon Lee and Brooklyn Mack, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier, move splendidly across the floor. When leaping dancers nail their landings, their fellow dancers snap, clap, and scream “yes!” at them.
Legendary ballerina and current company ballet master Elaine Kudo leads this particular rehearsal. She watches her dancers intensely, completely silent, like a falcon high in the sky, scanning for prey. She finds her prey in a young dancer, not turning correctly out of her arabesque in a group of fluttering butterfly girls.
“You’re coming around trying to bend, but there’s no time,” she tells her.
Just outside on the patio, wardrobe supervisor Monica Leland begins her crucial job. She and two assistants dye more than 100 pairs of shoes in bright shades of silver, purple, orange, yellow, blue, and pink.
But this is the work that is almost peaceful, the calm before the coming onslaught of prop mishaps, wardrobe malfunctions, and the bustling swarms of bubbly children, snow angels and rats alike.
This year, during the marathon run of more than 30 shows, the company will use 5,000 pounds of dry ice and 100 pounds of pyrotechnics. Per each show, they use 21 gallons of paper and flame retardant snow (that staff sifts through before each show to remove dangerous stage hazards like hairpins and buttons), 135 light cues, 25 rail cues, five pyro cues, 210 costumes, and eight loads of laundry. And, out of the hundreds of children performing in the run, 34 sets of siblings.
A few weeks after rehearsal, it’s showtime at the Warner. Dancers arrive backstage through a secret back alley entrance. Giant cat, frog, rat, mouse, fox, and squirrel heads on shelves greet them warmly. There’s even an enormous smiling Humpty Dumpty. Bodies are everywhere, but this time it’s not as quiet as rehearsals. The children are here. They’ve descended upon the production, making their presence known.
Little fires begin immediately. Before the show, Clara’s grandfather, played by dancer Corey Landolt, is running around shirtless, in search of a piece of his costume. Later on, during the first act, his stuck-on mustache is falling off as he comes off stage. At the same time, a little girl says she heard something on her costume pop.
The company even has to wrangle a few stars for walk-on roles: ESPN host Tony Kornheiser, the Washington Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman, and Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton.
Somehow, with the guidance of excellent ballet masters like Jimenez and warrior wardrobe supervisors like Leland, it all comes together onstage.
“I have to go see if the rats did a good job,” Jimenez says. “Because if not,” she wags her pointer finger admonishingly. The two of them, along with the rest of the guiding staff, get everyone and everything under control backstage. Eventually.
Perhaps, that’s the true magic of The Nutcracker.
It’s all how you deal with it, Kent says. The artistic staff knows plenty will go wrong, but they overcome the challenges because the performers have devoted their lives to making this moment happen right here, right now for the audience. The annual holiday havoc will never stop. In her mind, every ballet company needs a Nutcracker.
“This is a holiday tradition and after Halloween, in our shopping malls you hear the Sugar Plum Fairy variation, you listen to that incredible score by Tchaikovsky,” Kent says. “It’s one of those ballets that has transcended high culture and is now part of popular culture, and it hits all the buttons for everyone, whether it’s the 3-year-old or the grandmother.”
At the Warner Theatre to Dec. 24. 513 13th St. NW. (202) 783-4000.