’Tis the season for a scam dressed in a red velvet bow and smelling sweetly of nostalgia, but the Joffrey Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker,
almost daily through December 26, is a quality package with thoughts
that count. The 1987 choreography, by Robert Joffrey with Gerald
Arpino’s snowflake and flowers scenes, is a fine foundation; it’s rare
to see a version this disciplined, one that sees tradition as a
challenge, not a burden. Oliver Smith’s designs for the first act are a
pastel children’s-book take on America before the Civil War, while his
second act set is slender and spare. (Plump berries on filament stems
and an airy, beadwork arcade make the already large Auditorium stage
look positively cavernous.) Like I said after seeing this Nut for the first time in 2008, it delivers. It does what The Nutcracker is supposed to do.
Now, lest what I just said fooled you, I’m a Grinch around the
holidays and couldn’t be paid to participate in seasonal cheer. I attend
The Nutcracker because, otherwise, I’d go four months without seeing a company that’s changing fast. As if to prove my point, the Joffrey was again stripped and refinished December 10. Its latest look? The reserved elegance of the Royal
splashed with contrasting notes of Kanye-level braggadocio and youthful
wonder, the latter in Anastacia Holden’s exuberant Clara and Ricardo
Santos’s impetuous Fritz.
It was all in the casting.
With the year both have had,
you’d expect to see Fabrice Calmels and Victoria Jaiani in the
Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy roles. Not so opening night. They
were tasked instead with this choreography’s unusual double assignment:
Clara’s parents play the royal couple in the snow scene that closes Act
I and send her off to the Kingdom of the Sweets with loving waves as
the curtain drops. (Her brother Fritz becomes the Snow Prince.) Mauro
Villanueva, a stoic, Dowell-styled
dancer who’s a universe away from Calmels’s action-hero approach to
alpha males, placidly played the Prince to Yumelia Garcia’s Sugar Plum.
facial expressions were over the top and her curtsies lasted far too
long, but the diminutive, muscular Venezuelan has an undeniable ear for
music and gave the Act II adagio a game-changing interpretation. She can
perch endlessly on pointe, like Cuba’s Viengsay Valdés, but is
otherwise more abstinent and not much of a turner (a gift in disguise).
Villanueva’s restraint, dry on its own, was a great match, both for
Garcia’s prodigious talent and her indulgent presentation of it.
Nutcracker or no, it was the strongest performance by the
Joffrey so far this season. The Chicago Sinfonietta, under the baton of
Tito Muñoz, didn’t match the familiarity the dancers had with their
material, but warmed up considerably throughout the evening. (The
dancers opened this year’s production at the Kennedy Center over Thanksgiving, and played St. Louis’s Fox Theatre last weekend.)
So comes the real news: A 23-year-old production proves, once again,
that it’s lost none of its luster, but the company that stewards it
continues to reinvent itself at a breakneck pace. Who knows what we’ll
see when the Joffrey performs Ronald Hynd’s The Merry Widow in February.
The Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker continues, with some casting variations, through December 26 at the Auditorium Theatre.
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