Septime Webre's "Nutcracker"
A Washington Holiday Tradition
In a November 14 New York Times Arts and Leisure article by Alastair Macaulay, entitled “The Sugarplum Diet,” it was discovered that “The Nutcracker” had become an American holiday institution. Tchaikovsky’s snowflaked Russian masterpiece from the 19th century has become a staple and an icon of Christmas, USA, right alongside that most British of creations, “A Christmas Carol.” Here in Washington, you won’t find a more American “Nutcracker” than the one created by Septime Webre, the Artistic Director of the Washington Ballet, which has become a DC institution when it was first introduced in 2004.
“No question about it,” Webre said in a phone interview. “‘The Nutcracker’ has become an American Christmas tradition. It’s not being done in Europe as a Christmas thing. It’s a very American occasion—very much a part of the holidays. And yes, it’s a very traditionally popular program on our schedule, and I think every ballet and dance company in the country. It’s a big part of the business of ballet.”
Webre has taken Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet to his bosom and made it an American ballet. “I believe in community,” he said. “Washington is our community, and we try to reflect that in the production.”
“The Nutcracker” is a children’s fantasy that adults, parents, couples, and grandparents can and usually do enjoy. It revives their memories of childhood. “We’ve turned it into something of an American story,” Webre said. “The nutcracker hero has become George Washington, and the rat king has become George III so that the battle against the mice is kind of a Revolutionary War battle, with the mice being English soldiers.
“We’ve set the production at a Georgetown mansion very much like Dumbarton Oaks, and the second half of the ballet is set around the time of the cherry blossom blooming. And yes, there will be little cherry blossoms as well as sugar plum fairies. Some of the iconography of the original has been changed to become more American. There are Indians, for instance, and the kids receive toys like wooden horses and Indian headgear. It’s something we can all recognize.”
Plus, there will be some 300 children, all of them from the Washington Ballet’s education program, who will at one point or another be a part of the show. “That’s where the community comes in,” Webre said. “Certainly we have our interests, but this company, this institution that Mary Day created, we now reach out into all our schools through a special education program, and during the course of ‘The Nutcracker’ we can see the results of that.”
Webre, a gifted choreographer whose parents came to the United States from Cuba, remembers doing several roles in a performance at a beach in the Bahamas when he was a child. “We all remember ‘The Nutcracker,’” he said. “To me, it’s always about the children, about our own childhoods. Many children learn about etiquette of the theater going to see ‘The Nutcracker’. For many of us, it will be the first theater performance we’ve ever attended.”
Webre pointed out that the production will once again have “guest” performers present, which have included Ward 2 City Councilman Jack Evans, soprano Denyce Graves, and others.
“Having been artistic director now since 1999, one of the things I love to see, and you can do this with ‘The Nutcracker,’ is watching kids mature from being mice, or sugarplum fairies to taking on lead roles such as Clara. You get a parental pride out of that, and the other thing is, of course, that this is a coming of age story; it’s about Clara and her experiences and how she grows up.
“I believe the audience to some degree has to recognize themselves in theater,” Webre said. “You can see yourself in ‘The Nutcracker.’ Children do. We remember ourselves. There’s the great and familiar music, of course. There’s the beautiful costumes and sets. But it’s a story. You see a family celebrating the holiday—that warm atmosphere of giving and playing.”
That’s as American as apple pie.
This year’s production of “The Nutcracker,” at the Warner Theatre, runs December 2-26. Call 202-397-7382 for tickets.