The Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker

December 19, 2011 § 1 Comment

In the past few years, my sister and I have resurrected our childhood holiday tradition of seeing The Nutcracker almost every year. We usually see our local Nutcracker performance, with all its charming amateur quirks. (Last time we saw it, the curtain literally came down on the Sugar Plum Fairy’s head!) This year, however, we upgraded to the Joffrey Ballet’s performance instead.

The Joffrey performed in the beautiful Auditorium Theatre, a glowing, golden Victorian confection perfectly suited to a ballet that is basically the same. More important than its good looks was the fact that the theater was designed to have not a single bad seat in the house–an improvement over our usual venue, the Overture Center, where anything not in the first half of the main floor leaves something to be desired. The fact that the Chicago performance contained a live orchestra was just the marzipan on the cake for two former musicians, especially as Tchaikovsky’s score is still just about one of the most magical in the whole world for me. As an added blessing, the Joffrey production was heavier on the dancing than most I’ve seen. With many productions of The Nutcracker, you have to wait until the closing moments of the first act to get to anything beyond the very lightest of dancing, but here they made an effort to integrate it throughout.

One aspect which, unfortunately, didn’t work for me was that the production used adults in the roles of Clara and Fritz while the rest of the children’s roles were danced by . . . children. My favorite conception of Clara is when she’s played as a teenager, halfway between girlhood and womanhood, as in the San Francisco and Pacific Northwest Ballets’ versions of the ballet. A good 16-year-old dancer can do all the none-too-difficult dancing required of Clara in most productions, while her childlike innocence is still convincing–and being in between two ages can be played for some lovely dramatic tension that brings an interesting-but-not-overreaching subtext to what is otherwise often staged as a very superficial production. Barring that, I can accept a well-acted child Clara, a la Balanchine. Adult Claras rarely tend to work–as in the unintentionally creepy and somewhat infamous 1970s Gelsey Kirkland/Mikhail Baryshnikov Nutcracker video, where all that garish stage make-up just underlines the fact that Gelsey is not a child, and the “love triangle” they’re forcing on her is really frickin’ creepy. And adult Claras especially don’t work when they’re surrounded by dancers who actually are the age they’re supposed to be playing. Audiences can be asked to suspend their disbelief, but why immediately undermine it by surrounding your adult Clara with 11-year-olds who are supposed to be her best friends, and whose youthful enthusiasm and joy are genuine instead of pantomime?

Once the party scene was over, though, the age of the dancer playing Clara didn’t register quite so much, and I was able to sit back and enjoy. Another difference from many of the performances I’m used to was the busy-ness of many of the scenes, but in The Nutcracker, a cheerful chaos is not necessarily a drawback. I enjoyed seeing a more dance-heavy Nutcracker, and even my sister liked it quite a bit more than she was expecting. It might have even convinced her to go see what she terms “a real ballet” . . . Hmmm. Dare I say Giselle? I’m dying to see Veronika Part.

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