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The Joffrey Ballet

"The Nutcracker"

by Heather Desaulniers

December 23, 2010 -- Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Chicago, IL

The Joffrey Ballet's “Nutcracker” was my third and final foray into the story of Clara and her Prince, at least until next December rolls around. And, like any “Nutcracker”, there are things to love about the Joffrey Ballet's production and things that could definitely be improved upon.

As the party scene unfolded, this combination of strength and weakness was evident. The choreography for the adult party guests was much more interesting and involved than most “Nutcrackers”, demonstrating and incorporating the classical ballet footwork canon: ballonés, balletés, cabrioles, and more. This version proves that the adult party guests can perform intricate footwork while still looking regal and sophisticated. Joffrey's choreography for the mechanical dolls, specifically his attention to their arms, was also much more realistic than usually seen. His vision of these life-size toys (and the dancers' detailed interpretation of his choreography) reminds us that looks are deceiving – what appears real may in fact just be a mirage. Unfortunately, the Joffrey Ballet's decision to have Clara and Fritz played by adult company members (who then pretend to be children) doesn't work very well. I do concur that having adults dance these roles means that the solos, duets, variations and pas de deux can all be of a high technical level. But, no matter what, it always makes the party scene look silly and a little strange to have adults pretending to be children amidst fifteen actual children.

My favorite moment of every “Nutcracker” is Act I, Scene III, 'The Land of Snow', and because I love it so much, I tend to be fairly critical of this particular dance. The Joffrey Ballet's version (contributed by Gerald Arpino) was absolutely breathtaking. Additional characters (the snow winds, snow tree angels and especially the snow prince, danced by Aaron Rogers) made this vision both magical and transformative. The absolute highlight of the scene was the snow prince's short solos - Rogers' interspersed his already incredible pirouettes a la second with equally stunning double attitude derrière turns.

Onto Act II and the 'Kingdom of Sweets' and the introduction of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her role in this “Nutcracker” was fairly traditional as she reigned over the fantasy land, facilitating Clara's short visit. Yumelia Garcia was an incredibly proficient Sugar Plum Fairy, with stunning technical promise – every balance was solid and seemed to last an eternity. Having said that, some of her movements were a little empty. Her penchée split is phenomenal but nothing new; almost every female dancer has that capability. What now makes that position interesting is the transition into it and this is where Garcia was lacking. She sprung right to 180 degrees without letting the audience see the in between spaces. These fleeting moments are where the true artistry lives and they are what gets an audience excited. The Chinese Tea duet, danced by April Daly and Aaron Rogers was another variation that was good but could have been great had there been closer attention to technique. The dance ended with a set of fantastic single pirouettes from 5th position, and though they were only single turns, a series of these ending in 5th in between each, is no small feat. The problem was that Daly never really closed in 5th at the performance I saw; her heels actually never touched the ground at all between these turns. It may seem like a picky detail, but that short instant of repose (both feet on the floor in 5th position) is what makes the sequence special.

One final contribution that the Joffrey makes to the “Nutcracker” genre is their take on the Waltz of the Flowers. It wasn't so much Arpino's choreography that set this Waltz apart from others (though it was beautiful), it was the organization of the variation. Instead of having one or two primary dancers lead a larger corps through this famous music, Arpino chose to cast eight individuals as different flowers. Here was a true pas de huit, where each dancer had equal importance. It was a true experience of polyphonic movement as each dancer was able to be independent and interdependent at the same time. They could take focus when it was their turn and blend with others when needed. The dancing was lovely, but it was the structural formation of the Waltz where the genius is apparent.

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