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Dance review: Joffrey 'Nutcracker' at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

December 2, 2011 |  1:30 pm

Nutcracker
Robert Joffrey got just about everything marvelously right in his 1987 “Nutcracker,” the last ballet he directed before his death. 

And the Joffrey Ballet did just about perfectly as well on Thursday, when the company returned with this sparkling production to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion (through Sunday).

This distinguished group of 42 dancers, now headquartered in Chicago and directed by alumnus Ashley Wheater, gave Los Angeles an assured and elegant classicism, a maturation first seen three years ago here in a production of Sir Frederick Ashton’s “Cinderella.”

With original scenes by co-founder Gerald Arpino and based on the 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production, Joffrey's "Nutcracker" is innocent and sweet without leaving the audience feeling sticky. It hues more closely than most to Tchaikovsky’s unerring musical story-telling. Set designer Oliver Smith imagines a picture book-charming Victorian America that never overwhelms the stage.

Balance is key, and the dancers made that a quality, not a restrained shortcoming. This “Nutcracker” can even make a believer out of jaded adults, or so said a delighted friend I ran into; she admitted that just the name normally causes stomach churning.

The occasional speed bumps Thursday evening were of the sort that occur on opening night: spacing issues (near collisions) and miscommunication with Joffrey music director Scott Speck, who conducted the LA Opera Orchestra. A tolling clock cue was missed and Speck adopted a glacial tempo during the grand pas de deux, adding an unnecessary hurdle to the exacting classical solos and duets for Nutcracker Prince Dylan Gutierrez and his Sugar Plum Fairy Victoria Jaiani. Despite rattled nerves, poise and sturdy technique carried them through.

The Joffrey cast does double and even triple duty, appearing in character and balletic parts, which underscore that Clara’s rabbit-hole journey is but a beautiful dream. Kara Zimmerman and Fabrice Calmels made two remarkable transformations -- from the upright and harried Stahlbaums, Clara’s parents, to the refined Snow Queen and King, and then, finally, to the sinuously sensual Arabian Coffee couple.

Similarly, Ricardo Santos pulled off the mischievous boy Fritz with un-self-conscious playfulness. He channeled his buoyant energy into the arching leaps and assured spins of the Snow Prince, and then into the kitschy Tea from China variation, joined by the equally peppy Abigail Simon.

The four Russian Nougats –- Erica Lynette Edwards, Derrick Agnoletti, John Mark Giragosian and Alberto Velazquez -- were an energetic high point of the second act. The ballet's latter half, while lovely, lacks the spontaneity of the first. The musical patchwork that Joffrey used to introduce each divertissement makes an unhappy disruption. Too, Arpino’s flower waltz is a weaker version of his shimmery snow scene. The choreographer perfectly interpreted the urgency of the score’s snow storm, with a flurry of ballerinas and danseurs flying across the stage on the diagonal, then settling into crystalline flake formations. We were lucky, too, to have the National Children’s Chorus providing live accompaniment. 

It’s hard for an adult to play Clara, but Anastacia Holden brought an unforced perkiness. Michael Smith’s Drosselmeyer was dapper and mysterious, a memorable uncle from a bygone day. 

After all, “Nutcracker” is for memory-making –- for the youngsters watching and those performing. The youngest will store these special moments to relive as adults. Who will forget Kermit Love's giant Mother Ginger? (Certainly not the child who shouted "No bye-bye!" as the puppet exited.) Scads of local tykes were cast and they made as pleasing an impression as their adult counterparts did. Perhaps one among them will be the next choreographer or producer that carries along these tasty traditions. 

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 --Laura Bleiberg

Joffrey Ballet, “The Nutcracker,” Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday; $34 to $125; (213) 972-0711 or www.musiccenter.org.

Photo: Kara Zimmerman as the Snow Queen and Fabrice Calmels as the Snow Kingin "The Nutcracker> Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times

 


 
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