By Jane Rosenberg
Whenever I approach a production of the “Nutcracker,” I bring along my seven-year-old self and wait expectantly for the holiday fantasy to begin. Thursday night at the opening performance of the Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker” was no exception. I never tire of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s classic tale or of Tchaikovsky’s perfect ballet score, and when the house lights dim, I’m transported, whether to nineteenth century Nuremberg or, as in the case of the Joffrey production, to America circa 1850.
Did the Joffrey production, conceived by Robert Joffrey, with additional choreography by Gerald Arpino, meet my expectations both as child and adult? The answer is yes and no. The excitement of Christmas, set in a suitably cozy and inviting house, was conveyed in Act 1; and both Clara, danced on opening night by Anastacia Holden, and Fritz, danced by Ricardo Santos, brought a sense of childlike eagerness to their respective roles.
Holden, petite and believable as an adolescent girl, harmonized beautifully with the real children around her; and Santos was exceptional in his portrayal of her taunting and mischievous brother, adding levity and spice to the scene.
With the arrival of Godfather Drosselmeyer and his nephew, the plot begins in earnest. Drosselmeyer was intriguingly captured by Michael Smith, playing a younger version of the usually white-haired godfather. This Drosselmeyer was more stage magician than eccentric toymaker, more Johnny Depp than Christopher Plummer. All was well, and my child and adult selves were content, until I saw Drosselmeyer’s nephew beside Clara. Though danced competently by Dylan Gutierrez his tall stature was entirely out of scale with Clara’s petite frame. It felt as if a college grad had crashed a children’s party, and this lack of a believable pairing jarred me throughout.
Which brings me to another odd decision, this time a question of production rather than casting. When the battle of the mice and toy soldiers erupted, where was Clara? She was offstage – an unfortunate choice. Clara, frightened by the arrival of the mice, is normally left onstage to face the conflagration and witness her beloved Nutcracker about to be vanquished by the Mouse King. The audience feels for her, reacts with her; and Clara, overcoming her fear, throws her shoe and becomes the instrument of the Nutcracker’s salvation. Instead, here she was ferried on high by Drosselmeyer and “dropped in” to drop the shoe. It is Clara’s bravery in the face of her fear that makes her truly heroic. Her heroism is rewarded by a fabulous journey to the Land of Sweets, where her act of bravery is applauded by the inhabitants and the Sugar Plum Fairy. In this version, when Gutierrez as the Nutcracker prince/nephew recounted Clara’s heroic deed in mime, we could only wonder why she deserved our admiration.
Nevertheless, there’s a lot for any adult or seven-year-old to love in this Nutcracker: the marvelous owl clock, ticking away like Tick-Tock from The Wizard of Oz books; Drosselmeyer’s mechanical dolls in their Commedia dell’Arte costumes; the shimmering Christmas tree that grows before our eyes, the battling mice riding ratback, and best of all, the sixty talented children who perform throughout the acts, along with the voices of the Los Angeles based National Children’s Chorus.
Their rapturous voices are heard in the exquisite music of Act One, Scene Three as twinkling paper snow billows down onto the dancing snowflakes. Tchaikovsky’s music, interpreted in this production by the excellent LA Opera Orchestra, all but defines Christmas and the marvels of a winter wonderland. The corps looked sharp as dancing snowflakes led by their Snow Queen, Kara Zimmerman, who also took a sinuous and seductive turn as Arabian Coffee in Act Two. Ricardo Santos, dancing as the Snow Prince, again gives a joyous performance, leaping with exquisite abandon and musicality into his jumps and turns despite the hazards of fifty pounds of paper snow on the stage floor.
The sets by Oliver Smith for Acts One and Two are pleasant enough, but once we arrive in the Land of Sweets, I found myself asking, where are the candy canes, gumdrops, gingerbread, and all manner of sugar that should form the scenery for the divertissements to follow? After twenty odd years, the wan pink set looked more like a backdrop for a 1950’s variety show than a modern child’s fantasy of candy land. And yet, the background melts away as we watch spicy Hot Chocolate (Valerie Robin), sultry Coffee (Kara Zimmerman and Fabrice Calmels), playful Tea (Abigail Simon and Ricardo Santos), Russian Nougats (all four marvelously danced by Erica Edwards, Derrick Agnoletti, John Giragosian, and Alberto Velazquez), and charming Marzipan Shepherdesses (a delightful pas de trois for Katherine Bruno, Yumelia Garcia, and Caitlin Meighan).
When Mother Ginger, conceived as a giant puppet by Kermit Love, waddled onstage bearing her little clowns, there was an audible cooing among the audience. And when scores of children toddled out from under her skirts, so total was the pleasure that when Mother Ginger took her leave, a tiny voice in the audience on Thursday night shouted “ No! Don’t go bye-bye!”
The rapturous Waltz of the Flowers was notable for a lovely pas de trois, but all the dance sequences felt oddly punctuated by Herr Drosselmeyer who, in this version, inserts himself into the proceedings as a kind of impresario – a role normally bestowed on the Sugar Plum Fairy. Victoria Jaini, as Thursday night’s Sugar Plum, was elegant and technically precise, but lacking in poetic nuance. Partnered by Gutierrez, they proved a better match than his Act One pairing with Holden’s Clara.
Instead of Clara’s departure for home in the usual sleigh, Drosselmeyer and Clara fly home in a hot-air balloon. A fanciful and inventive touch, I couldn’t help but think of the Wizard and Dorothy. How about a new production of the Nutcracker set in 1900’s Kansas? In the meantime, Los Angeles, with its real and imagined seven-year-olds, has the good fortune to have the Joffrey Nutcracker here until Sunday.
Illustrations ©1985 by Jane Rosenberg. Photos courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet. Anastacia Holden photo by Herbert Migdoll.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets and SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children.