It is a testament to the vision of Robert Joffrey that his 1987 version of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s perennial ballet The Nutcracker has become an annual event both on tour and at the Joffrey’s home base in Chicago. This year, 2011, the Mice, Princes, Sweets and Snowflakes of the Joffrey return to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles (their first time since 1994) before returning to the Windy City.
This extravagant production (which utilizes over 60 local children in tandem with the full Joffrey company) replaces the long-established European ambiance of most Nutcrackers with a mid-19th century American setting (but only in setting: the cast is as diverse as the United Nations). The beautiful design and sheer magnificence of this presentation will no doubt delight the family, even as discerning ballet purists will recognize that some of the dancing lacks precision and sparkle. The costumes, live orchestra, select dancers, and positively enchanting stage pictures help to make this safe, occasionally wobbly, large-scale production a most likeable event.
The ballet opens at a Christmas Eve party in the opulent home of Mayor Stahlbaum (Fabrice Calmels), his Mrs. (Kara Zimmerman), and their children Clara (Anastacia Holden) and Fritz (Ricardo Santos). Dr. Drosselmeyer (Michael Smith), eccentric godfather of the children, entertains dozens of guests with his life-sized mechanical dolls before presenting Clara with a toy Nutcracker, which Fritz promptly breaks. The guests depart and all retire to bed, save the broken-hearted Clara, who is transported to a dreamland where her family and party guests are converted to the denizens of different enchanted backdrops. In a “Magical Battleground” under a gigantic Christmas tree, the Nutcracker doll becomes a Mice-battling Prince (Dylan Gutierrez), who is then lead by the cape-swishing Drosselmeyer into “The Land of Snow” and “The Kingdom of Sweets.” There, Clara is presented with gifts from around the world and Pas de Deux from gorgeous fairies and flowers. But all dreams, according to the synopsis, must come to an end and children must return to the home of their loving families (although, if I were Clara, I’d knock Fritz on the noggin with my broken Nutcracker doll).
One of the charms of this ambitious creation is that individual personalities are given the chance to shine in group sequences, such as the American Civil War Era folk dancing at the party. In breaking with strict Russian ballet, Joffrey wisely allows dancers with the same choreography to give their own flavor to their movement, as if they were actually at a party. Even during the mechanical doll sequence, partygoers gently swayed in the background, nodding and silently commenting to each other with distinction; it’s a strikingly uncanny experience.
The children are ravishing – not only are they filled with delight to be on the stage, but their movements are remarkable. A commendation goes to this estimable company and Children’s Ballet Master Charthel Arthur for instilling the joy of dancing into young hearts (and a relief to those of us who worry that ballet may one day become antiquated). A special nod to the young dancers who played the Snow Tree Angels: they were captivating and heartwarming.
With a company this size (42 dancers!), it is accepted that some members will outshine others, but this Nutcracker seems to be content as a spectacle more than showcasing the best of the best in every role: some of the dancing from the company did not take off (Valerie Robin’s Chocalate from Spain – the fan dancer – seemed weighted down and unremarkable) and group dancers simply did not match each others’ hand gestures or level of battement (leg raises). Therefore, it was indiscernible whether the ever-popular Nougats From Russia were supposed to be slightly off from each other (mimicking the individual personalities at the party) or if they simply lacked cohesion (to be fair, the athleticism of the Nougats was exhilarating).
Although it seems illogical that the hateful brother Fritz should become the Snow Prince in Clara’s dream, Ricardo Santos is a dream unto himself – his leaps simply defied gravity. The mechanical dolls, although a short segment, had some of the strongest dancing of the night, thanks to Yumelia Garcia, Lucas Segovia, Erica Lynette Edwards and John Mark Giragosian. Kara Zimmerman and Fabrice Calmels as the Snow Queen and King were lovely: her pointe work was flawless and his turns were executed with such grace that it defied his large frame (although their Coffee From Arabia lacked a spark). As it should, the evening belonged to The Grand Pas de Deux, danced by Victoria Jaiani as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Dylan Gutierrez as the Nutcracker Prince. Prima ballerina Jaiani was lithe and graceful to her fingertips.
Oliver Smith designed the glorious scenery and costumes. Combined with Jack Mehler’s lighting (after original designs by Thomas Skelton) and 50 pounds of fake snow, the Land of Snow sequence was one of the most beautiful images ever seen on stage.
Under the baton of Scott Speck, the 60 musicians of the LA Opera Orchestra brought new life to the score even as they slowed down some of the melodies that would be played allegro for the truncated Nutcracker Suite (the Chicago Sinfonietta will accompany the Chicago run). Another magical element was the live children’s choir during the Waltz of the Snowflakes.
While this Nutcracker wasn’t nearly as thrilling as this year’s Scottish Ballet, Mark Morris Dance Group (both at the Chandler), and the New York City Ballet (at the Valley Arts Center), the Joffrey should be applauded for keeping this nearly 25 year-old tradition alive; it’s mind-boggling what it takes to put this evening together. Even though this year feels uneven, it’s impossible not to like the show; it’s a spectacle of love that imbues adults with a cozy sense of nostalgia and children with a love of dance. That’s not a bad Christmas present.
photos by Herbert Migdoll
Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcrackerends in Los Angeles on December 4plays in Chicago December 9-27for tickets, visit http://www.joffrey.org or http://www.ticketmaster.com
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