The Joffrey Ballet: A “Nutcracker” Steeped in Americana

 

I first saw the Joffrey’s Nutcracker more than fifteen years ago. It struck me then as being a particularly beautiful and imaginative production. Even then the staging and design for Waltz of the Snowflakes alone was well worth the price of admission. Happily, that is still true. And it was good to see that the Currier and Ives vision of Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino hadn’t lost any of its stunning picturesque and theatrical qualities in the absence of the company’s two original founders. It is a remarkably vivid production, full of dance, American vitality, classical underpinnings, and loaded with snow, magic dust, and flower petals that never seem to stop falling. For me it’s the Nutcracker to see when you’re seeing one.

And it’s not only the snow that keeps coming. The production is loaded with a particularly fine group of children, nearly seventy of them, who dance up a storm in both acts making cute nearly obsolete and replacing the miming with challenging steps and an enviable sense of precision. Credit Joffrey again for making the children’s parts look like more than just a de rigueur nod to the holiday classic mentality. He turns it into the real deal. The children’s parts were prepared by Ina Haybaeck-Rogers in conjunction with Debbie Allen Dance Academy.

It is easy to like this blended version of the Nutcracker which is modeled on the 1940 Ballet Russe and original 1892 Mariinsky Theatre productions. Its connection to the classical originals and the delight that is in Snow and Waltz of the Flowers, both of which were choreographed by Arpino, give it appeal from the past as well as a touch of the present. Both of the big moments for the corps de ballet have the Arpino stamp of clever, non-classical steps and surprising direction changes that make his choreography especially pleasing to watch. And both are filled with men (four Cavaliers in Waltz and six Snow Winds in the Act I Snow) who act as partners but are also occasionally given something to say on their own. Striking in this regard is the brief solo in Snow (on Thursday danced by Ricardo Santos) that makes thoughtful use of the pause before the coda swings into full force. And in Flowers Arpino achieves a mesmerizing quality as the dancers wander in interlocking patterns as if in a waking reverie during the introductory music. The use of two harps from the original scoring makes it that much better. You are already hooked even before the real dancing begins. The ending, with its three tiers of posed dancers also offered another striking Arpino style tableau. You can admire Arpino’s sense of choreographic genius for the way The Land of Snow and Waltz of the Flowers come to rest so naturally with the ballet’s older, historic underpinnings.

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What was missing in this performance was a balanced star power duo in the Grand Pas de Deux. Victoria Jaiani delivered an expressive and well-wrought classicism as the Sugar Plum Fairy. It out shone Dylan Gutierrez as her Nutcracker Prince who lacked lightness and was not always imbued with a relaxed virtuosity. The choreography traversed the familiar classical outline from Petipa’s original. Also outstanding on the program were Kara Zimmerman and Fabrice Calmels in the Act II Coffee from Arabia.  Zimmerman stunned the opening night audience with her hyper-flexibility and Arabian ardor. She doubled with elegant classical style as the Snow Queen in Act I. Both made the most of the sinuous partnering and the continuous carried lifts. The conclusion, as she spools out a long piece of fabric which is caught by Drosselmeyer was both artful and elegant. For avoiding tricks and sticking with movement firmly grounded in folk dance, Nougats from Russia (the original Trepak is in fact, Ukrainian) felt both authentic and engaging. The audience clapped in unison, and the four dancers, Erica Lynette Edwards, Derrick Agnoletti, John Mark and Alberto Velazquez maneuvered and leaped with earthy style as good folk dancers should. Making something less of her prominent role was Anastacia Holden as Clara, who didn’t catch me with either a sense of believable wonder or innocence. Michael Smith offered a youthful and detailed version of Dr. Drosselmeyer with continuous action through both acts. To some extent it felt generic but perhaps fit the production’s design with its stylish, broad strokes of melodrama.

The music was generally excellent as played by members of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra conducted by Joffrey Music Director, Scott Speck. They were joined by the National Children’s Chorus directed by Luke McEndarfer. I felt short changed by the brass section which sounded under powered in the big moments of the menacing descending scale passages in the Grand Pas de Deux and in the final music for the Land of Snow. And it was more than a little unorthodox to recycle short sections from the Act I music to serve as introductions for the Act II divertissements. It is a clever idea that comes up short, especially in the Marzipan Shepherdess (Merlitons from the original score) music in which the changing key relationships grated uncomfortably. It should be clear with episodic music like this that cuts may work from time to time but rearrangements of musical sections may prove perilous or even wrong. Tchaikovsky’s answer was a simple pause to begin each section. Let the score be your guide.

The visual feast of the Joffrey Nutcracker is in no small part carried by the brilliant designs of Oliver Smith. His multi perspective set for Act I which explodes dramatically and beautifully to become the battle ground of the Mouse King beneath the gigantic Christmas tree makes you believe in the magic of stagecraft. There is nothing in either act that doesn’t seem purposefully set in place and all of it is illuminated for maximum glowing fantasy by Thomas Skelton’s original designs under the current direction of Jack Mehler.

Joffrey and Arpino have managed to bring to life a distinctly American feeling Nutcracker, full of Victorian sensibility and 19thcentury appeal. And like the impossibly romantic and fantasy driven tableau from the concluding scene of The Land of Snow it strikes us with a profound nostalgia as deep as the snow on the whitened stage.

Programs continue through Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion on the Dance at the Music Center series.

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