From opposite ends of Row S at the Auditorium Theatre, TOC Kids web editor Erin Osmon and TOC Dance editor Zachary Whittenburg watched opening night of the Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker on December 9. For both, it was their third time seeing this quintessentially American version, set in the U.S. on the eve of the Civil War, instead of in Germany, like most productions.
Both writers have also logged an hour or two in ballet slippers, as well as in many of the roles in various productions of the holiday classic. After a good night’s sleep—visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads—the two compared notes via Google Chat the following morning.
Erin Osmon: I think one thing that really stood out to me this year is how tight and lively the Act I party scene was—it seems as if someone really whipped it into shape. In all my years of dancing in and seeing different versions of The Nutcracker, that’s always the part most likely to drag on.Zachary Whittenburg: I noticed that, too, and felt the same way about the big ensemble dances, Snow and Flowers. The Joffrey has a new rehearsal director, Nicolas Blanc from San Francisco Ballet, who may have something to do with it. Because absolutely, the production was very tightly danced, from start to finish.And Derrick Agnoletti was great as Clara’s brother, Fritz. A real scene-stealer.He sure was. One of the company’s best actors. It was great to see him change personalities, twice, from Fritz to the Snow Prince, and then from the Snow Prince to the Chinese Tea boy. He really stepped up to the challenge of performing three big roles in a single evening.As their Prince, I think he might’ve stolen some attention from the Snow King and Queen, but they did a beautiful job as well.As one of the Joffrey’s senior members, his familiarity with this Nutcracker really pays off. Last night’s King, Dylan Gutierrez, hasn’t been with the company as long although he brought great spirit to the role of Clara’s father. That’s one subtle detail that I’ve really come to love about this version: Clara’s parents reappear to play the Snow King and Queen, which really gives us that sense that we’re in her dream world.
Have you ever noticed that audiences instinctively clap at the same parts during The Nutcracker, no matter which company is performing it?Like which?The Russian dance in Act II, for example—Which was terrific. —and when the Mechanical Dolls get carried offstage sideways, after their dances during the party scene. And Mother Ginger, of course, who in this version follows that crazy-cute little Gingerbread Man.Ah. Yes, classic moments. Although I did notice that there was no applause last night when the tree finished growing, which surprised me. That’s typically one of The Nutcracker’s surest ovation-getters.
I noticed that, too, and not much reaction to the cannons in the battle scene, either.Speaking of the battle scene: Those silver helmets for the soldier mice, and the Cavalry Mice’s mouse-headed “horses,” are genius. Totally. Have they always used those?I believe they’ve been around since this version premiered, in 1987. They’re by Kermit Love, who also designed the giant Mother Ginger puppet. Robert Joffrey’s entire production is really quite timeless, although Snow and Flowers, which were made by a different choreographer, Gerald Arpino, look a little ’80s to me now.
I can definitely see the ’80s in Flowers. It was actually one of the least interesting scenes to me.There are better Flowers scenes out there, it’s true. This one isn’t bad, it’s just that Arpino’s series of little duets and trios doesn’t capitalize on that big, lush Tchaikovsky waltz. Most choreographers interpret Flowers as a full-stage ensemble dance for women, with a soloist, and I think that’s because that approach “just works” for this classic piece of music. That said, Graham Maverick, Amber Neumann and Joanna Wozniak were all very lovely.I completely agree, especially given the fact that, when Flowers begins, the audience has just finished watching one energetic soloist after another. The dancers were lovely, indeed. I just think that these Flowers need a little more…fertilizer?Ha! Okay, I want to talk about the beginning of Act II for a sec. Erica Lynette Edwards, as the Spanish soloist, brought everything that was missing from the Joffrey’s Don Quixote earlier this year. And her shoes were incredibly soft—she didn’t make a sound. That was a really exciting couple of minutes for me. I don’t think that I’ve ever seen her dance that strongly before.I didn’t get to see Don Q, but my friend and I were talking about Edwards, too. We were really impressed with her gestures, her elegance, and yet how she hit all of the hard stops required to make that piece look authentically Spanish.Absolutely. Pitch-perfect, if she was singing.Were there any kids sitting by you? There was an adorable little girl near us who would sneak into the aisle from time to time, to get a better look or to imitate the action onstage. I think it’s cool that that was okay. This Nutcracker is a great, non-stuffy introduction for kids to ballet.No kids by me, although I saw plenty in the theater, all dressed up and on their best behavior. I always love that the children’s choir from the Snow scene comes out and sings before the show and during the intermission in the lobby. An adult couple behind me kept talking and saying funny things during the performance, though. The woman kept saying, “I have to get this soundtrack.”Ha! Yes, I really felt the audience’s respect for the beautiful setting of the Auditorium Theatre, and for the artists of the Joffrey. Even newbies get that, instinctively. It’s a dress-up, good-manners-night-out for families although, at the same time, there are boxes of popcorn for sale, and a ballpark-style vendor hawking T-shirts after the show. No one will get upset if your kid watches from the aisle for a few minutes. This production pretty much nails that blend of accessibility and magic.Hear, hear. And I have to say one last thing about some dancers: Yumelia Garcia’s Sugar Plum Fairy gets better every year. Her facial expressions can still drift a little over the top, but she’s got a lovely, nuanced sense of line and great musicality. She’s Chicago’s best ballerina, I think. And I was impressed with her Prince, Ogulcan Borova. Like Garcia is, he’s a very clean, subtle dancer who loves to stick a landing. And he turns to the left! That’s always a surprise.
Great observation about Borova—bravo for left turners!Were you a leftie?My left turns were always stronger, yes! Odd, as I’m right handed. How about you?I’m a rightie, all the way. That did seem to trip Borova up a little bit when he was partnering Garcia, actually: Because she turns to the right, their pirouettes together were slightly off. It was the same way for me, partnering women who turned to the left—that always felt strange.Garcia has beautiful feet and enviable balance.Oh, her balance in arabesque at the end of the adagio went on and on. It’s so fun listening to all of the little ballerinas in the house go nuts when stuff like that happens. First, total silence…then a chorus of high-pitched screams.
Truly incredible. I thought to myself, That’s why she’s the Sugar Plum Fairy. Even though her extensions weren’t nearly as gasp-inducing as, say, Victoria Jaiani’s were in the Arabian duet, Garcia has a level of control that made her performance really compelling.I agree.
Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker, with live music by the Chicago Sinfonietta, continues through December 27 at the Auditorium Theatre (50 E Congress Pkwy, 312-922-2110, auditoriumtheatre.org). $30–$115.
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