Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker Review - Magic Under the Tree

December 15, 2010
Chicago Splash
Toby Nicholson and Christopher Rutt


In this review of the Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker, Toby Nicholson and Christopher Rutt  who are both dancers and dance teachers dialogue, offering insights about the production.

CR: Toby, as my ballet go-to guy, you’re very familiar with The Nutcracker. How many times have you performed in or seen a version of this famous ballet?

TN: I've danced in at least four different productions, seen many more, and my son, Christopher, danced in the Ruth Page production for two years.

CR: How would you rate the Joffrey’s version?

TN: It is a glorious production, a lavish, visually beautiful display. I especially loved the opening. After vignettes of party guests crossing the stage during the overture, the curtain opens on a stunning living room in a Victorian mansion. It’s an impressive intro. What did you think, Chris? You dance and teach dance.

CR: I agree that the production was magical in many ways. The costumes, lighting, and period set design are wonderfully realized. The formal attire of the Victorian guests nicely complement each other in rich hues of purples, blues, and maroons, and the immense parlor with its forced perspective rivals some opera sets. Scene changes and transitions were seamless, and snow, fog, and pyrotechnics were used to good effect. And it is hard to beat live music, here the Chicago Sinfonietta led by guest conductor Tito Munoz.

TN: What didn’t you enjoy?

CR: Performance wise, I will say that the first act party scene feels long, as the general order of business -- greeting, giving gifts, watching life-size toys go through their mechanical actions, the obligatory adult dance – is a lengthy pantomimic gathering. Although here, Fritz, not Clara, steals the focus; while a very buoyant and expressive dancer, Ricardo Santos is given too much focus. It’s not long before you want the impetuous child to be sent to his room so that Clara, danced by Anastacia Holden, might get her due.

TN: I always have a problem with adults playing children. If we are to believe that these 25-year-olds are children, then what are these other little people? Although Santos and Holden are beautiful dancers, with little adjustment, well- trained children could perform these roles.

CR: Speaking of well-trained, the mice are wonderful. The costume designs are so inventive that, as the battle progresses, the battalions increase from cuddly, mischievous little creatures to rats whose metallic headpieces shine with sinister malice. Kudos to the creative designer, Kermit Love.

TN: The mice on horseback add a clever comic boost to a battle that suffers from a somewhat meandering musical composition. Choreographers also always have so much going on that it is difficult to focus on the salient points. The Mouse King got buried in the mêlée. And I totally missed the Mouse King’s death. Next thing I knew he was being carried out by his minions.

CR: Yes, he was decked from behind by a slipper-wielding Clara.

TN: Magically the Victorian house disappears in one of those seamless transitions you mentioned and we are in the Land of Snow. Now Clara’s parents appear as Snow King and Snow Queen. Here Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani are able to display their considerable dance skills. They make an elegant couple in their pas de deux. The king and queen are joined by the Snow Prince, wonderfully danced by the buoyant Ricardo Santos, now really in his element. Company dancers as snowflakes round out the beautiful scene amid the lightly falling snow.

CR: The sheer amount and rate of snowfall was stunning. It was almost disorienting to watch the choreography, but I loved the puffs of snow kicked up by each glissade. What do you consider some of the highlights of the second act?

TN: Well, Tea, featuring Allison Walsh and Ricardo Santos had a dramatic flare, even if the duet lacked choreographic inventiveness and relationship between the dancers. But they danced with personality and enthusiasm. Also, the Marzipan Shepherdesses ( Erin McAfee, Caitlin Meighan, and Jacqueline Moscicke) gave a pert preciseness to their trio. Their theme ending with a développé in effacé was particularly beautiful. The reed pipes seemed superfluous.

CR: And underused. I felt the same about the long fabric in the Arabian pas de deux, and wished that the choreography had included unusual manipulation of the cloth. And don’t you feel that the Arabian pas de deux should have some grounded sex appeal? Victoria Jaiani is strong, lithe, and flexible. It almost seemed that the choreography was only designed to display her incredible facility, rather than build a mood.

TN: I agree. And I would like to see a more masculine costume with less jewelry for a strong dancer like Miguel Angel Blanco.

The Grand Pas De Deux was ably danced by Sugar Plum Fairy Yumelia Garcia and Nutcracker Prince Mauro Villanueva. Although not particularly a matched pair, they each displayed strengths. Garcia’s traveling fouettés and her balances on point in arabesque were amazing. Villanueva was an attentive partner and displayed an aerial lightness in his solos. The Pas De Deux leads into a picturesque finale highlighted by a back-to-Oz image as the curtain descends.

CR: Yes, and therein lies one of the problems with this telling of the tale. The important plot device of Clara going to sleep, as well as awaken, seems like a fairly large omission. Everything after the first scene is a dream, isn’t it? And the dream aspect is the raison d’être for the entire second act. Without it, the viewer is left in a limbo of sorts, and in this version the balloon ride finale strangely alludes to that other classic about dreams, The Wizard of Oz. But that movie’s ending has a resolution; this one is left hanging, so to speak.

TN: Well, all in all, The Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker is a magnificent offering. I would like to see its new artistic director, Ashley Wheater, infuse his own personality into this fine work. Just as George Balanchine revitalized the whole Nutcracker phenomena in 1954, now it is Ashley Wheater’s turn. Chicago is fortunate to have this wonderful world-class  company to call its own.