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Washington • The snow fell on cue, sprinkling the dancers as they glided across the stage. The Snow Prince, with little Clara in tow, stepped off as the ballerinas twirled on the nation's stage to aahs from the audience.
Later, as Mother Buffoon's children bounded out from under her skirt, the crowd roared and applause grew thunderous as eight men in Russian garb danced the Cossack, pumping their legs out as their bodies defied gravity.
It ended with a standing ovation for Utah's Ballet West, making a return trip to perform the Nutcracker at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
There are countless versions of the classic holiday show in the Washington area this time of year, but few compare to the Kennedy Center's, with its live orchestra, children's choir and a storied venue that just this week hosted Tom Hanks, Al Green and Sting, among others.
For seven performances, though, the stage belongs to Ballet West, which was invited again by the Kennedy Center after its successful Nutcracker two years ago. The reviews show why.
"If the world feels cold and heavy, if the reality of what some are capable of doing to others weighs upon you, this ballet, which opened at the Kennedy Center on Wednesday night, offers a comfort of sorts," wrote Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman. "Here is a place where the music, Tchaikovsky's wondrous score performed by the Opera House Orchestra, seems to carry the dancers along in its currents and where lightness is the reigning esthetic."
Ballet West is taking a short interlude from its Salt Lake City performances to appear in Washington at the busiest theater in the country. And bringing such a large show, with its complex sets, elaborate costumes and even a motorized mouse, is fraught with challenges.
Michael Currey, the company's director of production and artistic operations, acknowledges as much. "That's why it takes a lot of people."
That means an army, he jokes, of 50 professional dancers, 22 crew members, eight production staffers, two stage managers and Currey himself.
The company finished its performance on Saturday in Salt Lake City and began loading up the sets, costumes and props into two tractor trailers that proceeded, nonstop, to Washington to move into the Kennedy Center on Tuesday morning. The reverse will be true after Sunday's final show in the nation's capital.
"We cross our fingers there won't be a blizzard in the middle of the country," Currey says.
These logistics are almost certainly lost on the three-tiered Opera House crowd for the company's performances this week. As the saying goes, there's one show on stage, and another behind.
During a dress rehearsal earlier in the day, the backstage action showed no sign of chaos even as the crew members and dancers themselves are putting this year's show on a new stage and keeping track of all the tutus and swords and Mother Buffoons' giant dress.
A few glitches – the stage-front snow stopped part-way through the run-through; the artistic director had to ask the adult performers for more energy – but overall, a finely tuned machine hummed after being dismantled, transported 2,100-miles and reassembled.
Not that there are many actual machines in the show, which is all about the people. Besides some specialty lighting, Ballet West is decidedly low tech.
A prop guy pulls a cord to make an owl flap its wings atop a grandfather clock. Stage hands huddle behind the throne set for an entire act to move the two sections apart and back together again. The fog in the snow scene comes from dry ice and hot water. The "snow" is really flecks of plastic hidden in large sacks and released as crew members pull cords to dust or blanket the scene as desired.
"That's the technology we have," Currey quips.
One thing Ballet West didn't bring along were the kids. For the cast of 81 children, youngsters from the Washington region were chosen and practiced for weeks with the Maryland Youth Ballet's Rhodie Jorgenson, the D.C. Children's ballet mistress hired by the company. Their first-time performing with the professionals came Tuesday night.
"It's life-changing for the kids," Jorgenson says. "It's something they'll remember for the rest of their lives."
Soloist Christopher Ruud of San Francisco plays the Sugar Plum Fairy's Cavalier in the Nutcracker and watched from the front of the house during the practice run. It made him emotional. His first ballet was the same show in his home town, and now he was playing a starring role at a premier venue. His autographed picture was for sale on the concession tables.
"It makes me think, look at where I've come," Ruud said.
His dance partner, Beckanne Sisk, a Texas native who plays the Sugar Plum Fairy, said there was little stage fright at such a revered space. "Nutcracker is something we're comfortable with, so we can go out and just have fun," Sisk said.
Ballet West returns to perform in Salt Lake City on Thursday and the Nutcracker runs through Dec. 31.