Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker: Live review

December 11, 2010
REVIEW by TimeOut Chicago
Zachary Whittenburg


’Tis the season for a scam dressed in a red velvet bow and smelling sweetly of nostalgia, but the Joffrey Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, almost daily through December 26, is a quality package with thoughts that count. The 1987 choreography, by Robert Joffrey with Gerald Arpino’s snowflake and flowers scenes, is a fine foundation; it’s rare to see a version this disciplined, one that sees tradition as a challenge, not a burden. Oliver Smith’s designs for the first act are a pastel children’s-book take on America before the Civil War, while his second act set is slender and spare. (Plump berries on filament stems and an airy, beadwork arcade make the already large Auditorium stage look positively cavernous.) Like I said after seeing this Nut for the first time in 2008, it delivers. It does what The Nutcracker is supposed to do.

Now, lest what I just said fooled you, I’m a Grinch around the holidays and couldn’t be paid to participate in seasonal cheer. I attend The Nutcracker because, otherwise, I’d go four months without seeing a company that’s changing fast. As if to prove my point, the Joffrey was again stripped and refinished December 10. Its latest look? The reserved elegance of the Royal splashed with contrasting notes of Kanye-level braggadocio and youthful wonder, the latter in Anastacia Holden’s exuberant Clara and Ricardo Santos’s impetuous Fritz.

It was all in the casting.

With the year both have had, you’d expect to see Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani in the Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy roles. Not so opening night. They were tasked instead with this choreography’s unusual double assignment: Clara’s parents play the royal couple in the snow scene that closes Act I and send her off to the Kingdom of the Sweets with loving waves as the curtain drops. (Her brother Fritz becomes the Snow Prince.) Mauro Villanueva, a stoic, Dowell-styled dancer who’s a universe away from Calmels’s action-hero approach to alpha males, placidly played the Prince to Yumelia Garcia’s Sugar Plum.

Garcia’s facial expressions were over the top and her curtsies lasted far too long, but the diminutive, muscular Venezuelan has an undeniable ear for music and gave the Act II adagio a game-changing interpretation. She can perch endlessly on pointe, like Cuba’s Viengsay Valdés, but is otherwise more abstinent and not much of a turner (a gift in disguise). Villanueva’s restraint, dry on its own, was a great match, both for Garcia’s prodigious talent and her indulgent presentation of it.

Nutcracker or no, it was the strongest performance by the Joffrey so far this season. The Chicago Sinfonietta, under the baton of Tito Muñoz, didn’t match the familiarity the dancers had with their material, but warmed up considerably throughout the evening. (The dancers opened this year’s production at the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving, and played St. Louis’s Fox Theatre last weekend.)

So comes the real news: A 23-year-old production proves, once again, that it’s lost none of its luster, but the company that stewards it continues to reinvent itself at a breakneck pace. Who knows what we’ll see when the Joffrey performs Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow in February.

The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker continues, with some casting variations, through December 26 at the Auditorium Theatre.