"We seem to be missing a bee," said an amplified male voice.

"Which cast?"

"Emerald," the Oz-like voice answered, adding more loudly: "Could I please have all sapphire bee -- "

"She's here!" cried an unamplified female voice from backstage.

A moment later, a small, apologetic-looking girl in a blue leotard scampered forward and joined two other girls who had been waiting downstage in the glare of the Warner Theatre footlights.

"Wonderful," boomed the disembodied voice. "OK, here we go."

The three little girls, who would be wearing striped bee costumes with humorously big bottoms for the full production, disappeared backstage again to wait for their cue.

The air filled with the recorded strains of the second act of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet. And the evening semidress rehearsal, with all its ballet-student bees, bunnies and butterflies, along with its cohort of professional dancers, resumed.

"Feet, ladies, feet!" reproved the voice, over the music, as supple young butterflies fluttered and dashed.

A girl sitting beside me in the orchestra seats leaned over and explained in a whisper: "He wants them to make prettier arches." She raised one of her own pointe-shoe-clad feet and demonstrated. Just then a couple of boys in leotards dashed past us toward the stage.

"Sssss! No running," hissed a parent chaperone.

"We're not running, we're just walking fast," laughed one of the rascals, who knew perfectly well that he and his friends had been running. Who could help it? They were in a grand, elegant theater not as visitors, but as performers. How wonderful was that?

The Warner Theatre on these occasions is like a fountainhead of civilization, pouring forth music and dance, restraint and exuberance, discipline and high spirits. Having the run of its carpeted aisles and plush red seats in the glow of its golden ceiling seemed to make everyone a bit giddy -- though, come to think of it, the giddiness of some of the adults probably came from lack of sleep and the dizzying responsibility of keeping all manner of casts and dancers in order.

"Clowns, over here please," said a firm-mannered choreographer to a bouncy group of girls. As they proceeded to the lobby for a private rehearsal, they passed two parent volunteers shepherding a host of pint-sized snow angels.

Dozens of parents still in their winter coats sat here and there throughout the theater, some gazing raptly at the stage, some just as intent on their iPhones. One gum-smacking mother, seemingly oblivious to the friendly exhortations to "Keep it down, everyone," audibly played electronic bingo.

It was a wonderful and only semichaotic scene. The music swelled and boomed, the dancers leapt and whirled (or skittered, if they were dressed as mice), and over it all came the steady and reassuring voice not of Oz, but of Septime Webre, artistic director of the Washington Ballet and mastermind of this annual holiday production. There was a break in the action, and a woman's voice called: "Sapphire butterflies!"

"I have to go now," said the young dancer with the pointe-y feet. She gave me a quick kiss and, as if on wings, flew toward the stage.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.