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Washington, D.C., version of this holiday classic has a distinct Fairfax flavor

by Elizabeth Cogan – Special to the Times
Photograph by Stephen Baranovics
Fairfax Times
December 08, 2009


Blond, blue-eyed ballet student Alex Sargent throws his head back and shimmies to music he has committed to memory, showing off his new jazz routine. The 11-year-old Herndon resident is on break from rehearsing at a theater in southeast D.C. for the Washington Ballet’s upcoming production of “The Nutcracker,” but he just can’t seem to stop performing. He hands his earphones to Luis R. Torres, an instructor and one of the company’s professional dancers, and proceeds to teach the veteran his moves.

“Shake it like it’s broken, shake it like it’s broken — oh my Lord!” Torres says. “I need some water after that; that took all my energy. That’s very good, keep it up.”

Downstairs in the theater, artistic director Septime Webre has been methodically coaching groups of dancers, some as young as 6, in the minutiae of their routines for what he calls a “very D.C.-centric” version of the popular ballet. He counts, “Five, six, seven, eight!” and more than 20 young performers skip across the stage — knees up, toes pointed, slender arms extended — in near perfect synchrony. Despite Webre’s frequent interruptions to fine-tune each element of the production he choreographed and premiered in 2004, no performer — young or old — shows any signs of fatigue.

“Part of it is there’s been a lot of group bonding going on … there’s definitely a team-building ethos around this,” explains Michael Segal, whose son, Paul Lytle, 7, plays a bumblebee this year. “There are definitely a lot of professionals involved with this. The whole place just says we’re taking this seriously.”

That ethos will be on full display Dec. 10, when the Washington Ballet moves its 2009 version of “The Nutcracker” to the Warner Theater in downtown Washington, D.C., after four performances at The Town Hall Education Arts and Recreation Campus, a multi-use facility housing cultural and social services agencies in the District’s Ward 8.  The Washington Ballet opened a satellite school at the facility — known as THEARC — in 2005, and students from the school have performed in “The Nutcracker” since 2007.

Donna Glover, manager of the Washington School of Ballet’s northwest District and Alexandria sites, said 350 students out of a total enrollment of 827 at all three sites will perform in this year’s “Nutcracker.” Only about 20 of those who auditioned did not receive a part, she said, and each of this year’s 25 public performances will feature 86 children.

“Septime Webre tries to incorporate just about everybody, but there’s always a costume issue, so if someone’s technical ability doesn’t match their size” they might not get a part, Glover said.

Sixth-grader Alex Sargent is a self-described veteran of the stage and said he knows the costume dilemma only too well. “I am Fritz for the third time in a row,” he said. “I’m afraid this year will be my last year because I barely fit the costume, so I’m soaking it up like a sponge.”

The sheer number of young performers, including 26 sets of siblings, creates an enormous logistical challenge for the Ballet’s staff and requires rotating casts not ranked according to ability, Glover said. “Everybody’s paying for a ticket to see ‘The Nutcracker,’ and you’d better be good,” she added.

Torres teaches boys’ classes at the Ballet’s northwest District campus and said he is optimistic that at least one of his students will become a professional dancer. “Yes, yes, yes, because they really love it,” he said. “You can tell at a young age when they really love it.”

Glover said that even among the teenage students invited from around the world to train at the school’s highest level, only about 10 to 15 percent will immediately enter the elite world of professional ballet.

Despite the odds, Alex Sargent has his future pretty well mapped out “dancing jazz or ballet classical. “With the American Ballet Theater in New York,” he said. “I don’t care how tiny or how dingy the apartment is.”

And when he’s too old to dance, Sargent hopes to be “either a choreographer or a biochemist,” he said.

Later, the student of Hunter Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences said, “…living the dream, every moment I’m on the stage, I think I’m living the dream.”


Copyright © 2009 Post-Newsweek Media, Inc./

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