As expected this time of year as TV ads, wreaths and shopping center crowds, “The Nutcracker” has by now gone beyond being merely a beloved holiday tradition to possibly being the country’s most performed work of any type — dance, music or theater. Multiple productions of it appear in dozens of cities year after year and is as much a part of family custom by now as opening presents.
Like the most impatient of the Christmas ads, the first of what will be at least a handful of productions of Tchaikovsky’s classic in D.C. opened the day before Thanksgiving.
After stints by the Joffrey Ballet, Ballet West and the American Ballet Theatre doing the piece there, the Kennedy Center has invited the Cincinnati Ballet to perform “The Nutcracker” this year, making its full company debut there in a large, whimsical production choreographed by the company’s artistic director and CEO Victoria Morgan. Her version, first staged in 2011, involves some unusual approaches for well known scenes, additional characters and above all, canines.
Her’s is not a wild variation of the traditional ballet based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, the way some of them can be. But she has added dancers pretending to be poodles. One accompanies Clara on her journey to the Land of Sweets; another group of poodles take over the Dance of the Mirlitons to make it the Dance of the Mirlipoos.
Each act begins with a kind of behind the scene tableau — where the kitchen help is preparing for the Christmas party to come as the ballet opens, and all of the eventual cast of the Land of Sweets preparing for the dances they will perform once Clara and the Nutcracker Prince come to visit.
This shift not only consumes some of the music we expect to be illuminating something else, in the case of the magical land, it presents nearly all of the individual dancers and their exotic costumes by Carrie Robbins at once, robbing the work of what would otherwise be bursts of surprise.
There is a lot of good humor to the dancing, to the point that it almost becomes goofy. But if “The Nutcracker” is every child’s introduction to dance, it’s probably not a bad thing to include so many sight gags and magic tricks, gymnastic tumbles and extraordinary devices to hold their attention.
Among them are a couple of mechanical mice who scoot by via remote control, serving as a kind of rodent Roomba. (It always seemed crazy that such a splendid home would be so overrun with vermin, but I digress).
Oğulcan Borova brings a youthfulness to the wily Herr Drosselmeyer, the mysterious dollmaker who brings the Nutcracker that will at the forefront of most of the work’s action. But he might be too young.
Indeed, he seems roughly the same age as Sophia Rose Beadie’s Clara, who despite her head of ringlets clearly seems an adult, or young-at-heart aunt, amid the girls playing at the party.
The other thing about Drosselmeyer: he flies. So there are strings behind the leaps that boost him, undercutting the real achievements of dance and dynamics that won’t come until the princess ballerinas finally appear.
There are some delightful touches, from the tumbling snowballs in the lovely snow forest contrived by set designer John Ezell, to partygoers on scooters, several cute cupcakes in the Land of Sweets and a long Chinese dragon to accompany the pole-jumping Chinese dancer (Patric Palkins).
Mother Ginger is always a surprise with her hoop skirt hiding a troupe of tiny dancers. But in this case, she’s a hen and the little ones are dancing chickies.
it seems a long time before the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chisako Oga) and her Cotton Candy Cavalier (Cervilio Miguel Amador) finally get down to their grand duet and individual dances that crown the pageant at the Land of Sweets. But it’s grand to see when it finally happens.
But Clara and company barely get back home in their carriages, led by weird biped horses, to allow her to awake from her dream.
With a large cast that also includes dozens of D.C. area children dancers and the Arlington Children’s Chorus, it’s a big event that is always grounded in the familiar score, given a sturdy and ringing treatment by Cincinnati’s Carmon DeLeone conducting the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra.
The audience seemed to cheer its approval of the Cincinnati Ballet such that it may become a return attraction in addition to serving Buckeye ballet audiences, for whom the event is known by the ever more cumbersome title, Frisch’s Big Boy Presents The Nutcracker.
The Cincinnati Ballet’s The Nutcracker continues through Nov. 27 at the Kennedy Center, Washington D.C.