A fixture of the holiday season is, of course, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Here in Chicago, this famous ballet must be performed by our very own Joffrey Ballet. For the first time, I attended a performance of this well-worn masterpiece and was, not surprisingly, completely overjoyed. Knowing the music so well allowed me to focus on the interpretation in dance, which, when left in the capable hands of Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the co-founders of the Joffrey Ballet, was assured and beautiful. This interpretation is, in fact, celebrating its twentieth year. Coupled with the astounding beauty of the Auditorium Theater, one of the greatest pieces of architecture in Chicago, the performance was a rousing and gorgeous success, a review the Joffrey is very used to.
Sitting in about the eighth row, completely level with the stage, I could have asked for no better seat in the house. The audience was comprised of all sorts - overexcited women who probably come every year, families, and gay couples. It was a far more diverse audience than I am used to while attending other "high art" performances. Then again, The Nutcracker seems to occupy a place all its own in the realm of ballet. Its popularity guarantees its perennial presence as assuredly as Handel makes his presence with Messiah. Regardless of the number of times heard, both lose no charm, and with Nutcracker, such a loss is virtually impossible with flawless performances by the Joffrey Ballet. The Chicago Sinfonietta provided the live music. Their accompaniment was excellent and almost flawless. The scenery and costumes were as traditional as can be, which is a great benefit when one wants to take in the whole experience without being distracted by strange artistic choices. There was liberal use of fog and an endless supply of snowflakes for Act I, Scene III, "The Land of Snowflakes." Every detail was impeccable and received warm applause from the audience. Even the initial appearance of Dr. Drosselmeyer, Godfather to Clara, engendered rapturous applause. With so much flawless execution, all there is left to focus on is the dancing.
There are many ensemble pieces in the ballet, numbers for whole groups of dancers. Some are straightforward, as in the opening dances by the party guests, while others are involved and filled with movement, as in Arpino's choreography to the "Waltz of the Snowflakes." One of the dancers that stood out immediately was Calvin Kitten, a true master of his art. At 5' 7", he was first assigned the role of Fritz, the bothersome brother who breaks Clara's nutcracker soldier. He not only dances wonderfully, but acts the hell out of that role. I was very impressed. His next role is as the Snow Prince, a staple of his repertoire. The applause was warm and sustained for all the seemingly effortless and amazing things he was able to do. His last role was as the male Tea bearer from China, in Act II. A much less ostentatious number, but again, performed flawlessly. Another dancer worth mentioning was the exceedingly limber Emily Patterson, who performed in the Arabian Coffee segment of the Divertissements. She was ably matched by Thomas Nicholas, and together, they created a pause in time. The music was slowed to half its original tempo and started with Thomas Nicholas dancing very angularly. He retrieved his partner and put her through her paces. She was able to do about a 190 degree split, standing. The whole effect of the dance was mesmerizing and I thought the slowed tempo worked magnificently. I didn't agree with the same choice for the final Pas de deux, some of the most beautiful music of the ballet, but that is a minor quibble. The dancers for that piece were Victoria Jaiani as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Fabrice Calmels as the Nutcracker Prince. They were both excellent. Calmels is 6' 6", and quite noticeable paired with such petite women (his partners wear large headpieces to compensate for the visual imbalance). But, when he dances alone, the long lines that he is able to create, and his effortless traversal of the stage, make for some wonderful dancing.
Wonderful dancing would be quite a succinct description of the whole affair, down to each of the many children who also were on stage. You can see a performance of the Pas de Deux at this link. You have to scroll down where the screen is to where it says "Joffrey performs the Nutcracker", sit through a couple of seconds of commercial, and then voila, a whole performance of the number with the dancers mentioned above. It will give you an opportunity to see how outstanding they are. Then multiply that by 10 for the whole excellent performance of the Joffrey Nutcracker.