Joffrey Ballet Chicago
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
November 27, 2013
by Alexandra Tomalonis
copyright 2013 by Alexandra Tomalonis
Robert Joffrey’s production of “The Nutcracker,” which Joffrey Ballet Chicago (Ashley Wheater, Artistic Director) brought to the Kennedy Center Thanksgiving week, is one of the most solid traditional “Nutcrackers” around. It was originally staged and directed in 1987by Joffrey, who was inspired by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo’s 1940 production. Joffrey’s version is specifically, believably 19th century American, lively enough to be absorbing to children and entertaining to their elders. It’s not as imaginative as Alexei Ratmanksy’s production for American Ballet Theatre to which the Kennedy Center treated us two seasons ago, but it’s a happy “Nutcracker,” and the nearly sold-out audience opening night seemed quite pleased.
The Joffrey’s production has adult dancers play Clara and her brother Fritz. Anastacia Holden was quite convincing as a child Clara; John Mark Gragosian’s Fritz was a young man who looked too mature for the childish shenanigans he had to perform. Since the two don’t have much dancing, real children might make the scene more realistic. Gragosian also danced the Snow Prince, and there, his series of brilliant pas de chats and soaring jumps stole the show.
Matthew Adamczyk, as Drosselmeyer, was more a master of party tricks than a maker of mysterious magic, but all in all, this a lively, enjoyable production – and the moment at the end of the battle scene when Drosselmeyer changes the Nutcracker into the Nutcracker Prince is truly magical.
As a holiday family treat, the Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” is a good show. But if one looks at it as a classical ballet (and the first production was created for the Mariinsky at the end of the 19th century) it falls a bit short. The dancing in the snow scene and Kingdom of the Sweets divertissements is an interesting case study of what happens when today’s dancers, chosen for and accustomed to dancing so much contemporary work, have to tackle a classical piece. These dancers can perform the steps — the Nutcracker Prince (Dylan Gutierrez) landed consistently clean fifth positions and was a supportive partner — but torsos and shoulders weren’t always engaged in the dancing. The cavaliers were rather wooden, as though correct posture was a metaphor for nobility. April Daly, as the Sugar Plum Fairy, had beautifully clean pirouettes, yet did not dominate her Kingdom as a ballerina would. One has the sense that classical ballet is not these dancers’ native language, but something put on, like party clothes, for special occasions.
In its heyday, the Joffrey was a collection of notable, instantly recognizable personalities; that’s no longer true — is it because contemporary ballet doesn’t demand, nor perhaps want, instantly recognizable personalities? Management might sense this, as some of the women danced with very big smiles, and Amber Neumann (as Chocolate from Spain) could not have danced with larger, more complete movements. One admired the attempts to dance and act on a big scale, but, again, that has to come from within.
The geometry was also off in the classical passages. The Joffrey men, at least those on view here, seem to be chosen for their height, which changed the balance in the Waltz the Flowers, especially. Their HUGE JUMPS get all the attention, while the much smaller women have to skitter out of the way, and dance prettily rather than grandly (which they did very well). All of Act II was like this — some lovely moments (I especially liked the exuberant, outgoing Russian Nougats), but a sense that something was missing. Classical ballet supports multiple viewings because each dancer can bring something of his or her own to each role, and that’s yet to come.
Scott Speck conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the Arlington Children’s Chorus in Tchaikovsky’s wonderful score.
Anastacia Holden (Clara) and Matthew Adamczyk (Drosselmeyer).
John Mark Giragosian as the Snow Prince. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.
April Daly and Dylan Gutierrez as Sugar Plum and the Nutcracker Prince. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.
Kara Zimmerman and Fabrice Calmels as the Snow Queen and Snow Prince. Photo by Herbert Migdoll.