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Joffrey's 'Nutcracker,' Waltzing Into Christmas

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 25, 2004; Page C01

Let us give thanks for the Sugar Plum Fairy. Let us be thankful for her pink tulle, for her daintiness, for her elegant manners. Let us also give thanks for a very sweet Clara, for a roguish but not too fresh Fritz, for flowers that waltz and for all the other trimmings of a traditional "Nutcracker."

It may feel too early for a Christmas party -- considering the Thanksgiving bird is barely out of the oven -- but the Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker," which opened a five-day run at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, is always welcome in my book. It is steeped in values both moral and artistic. It is gorgeous to look at and brightly danced. It throws its arms open to the little children in the audience, and satisfies their parents, too.

Maia Wilkins as the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Kingdom of Sweets in the Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker"; at left, Valerie Robin as the Snow Queen in the Land of Snow. Adam Skulte, below at right, sprinkled sparkle dust about as Dr. Drosselmeyer. (Photos Preston Keres -- The Washington Post)

And after several seasons of strange and misguided "Nutcrackers" -- those would be the Kirov, Bolshoi and American Ballet Theatre versions -- the Joffrey's wholesome, standard take on the 112-year-old ballet feels exceedingly fresh.

When he choreographed this production in 1987, the late Robert Joffrey transplanted the original Russian ballet to the America of the Victorian 1850s, drawing on old postcards and antiques he had collected. As a result, the costumes and decor are full of vintage character. The ladies at Mayor Stahlbaum's soiree wear sweeping hoop skirts, and their children play with a charming assortment of kites, wooden pull-toys, hobbyhorses and rag dolls. Pint-size angels dressed as white Christmas trees with gossamer wings swirl through the Land of Snow. The Kingdom of Sweets looks like what ice cream parlors in heaven must be -- radiant pink, with graceful soaring pillars and ribbon-candy balustrades.

Thanks to John David Ridge's costumes and Oliver Smith's scenery, there is not a sour spot in the ballet. The first-act party is one of the loveliest stage pictures you could ever hope to encounter. The tony parlor is warm mauve, the gowns are peacock blues, corals and deep plums. The tree-growing scene had a good deal of theatrical punch, complete with a showbizzy light show. The battle scene was terrific fun, with soldiers armed with muskets and aided by blinding blasts from a cannon. An overactive fog machine turned the snow scene into a blizzard on opening night -- toward the end of Valerie Robin and Samuel Pergande's duet you could actually get a glimpse of them -- but that appeared to be the sole technical glitch.

The dancing was somewhat rocky last night; a few Snowflakes went adrift, and one wished for more suppleness in the Waltz of the Flowers, some of whose members had a brittle air. (Was it the Clematis? The Dahlia? The buds are all named for Victorian posies.)

A higher standard was achieved by the principal dancers. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, Maia Wilkins seemed spun out of the sparkle dust that Dr. Drosselmeyer kept tossing about -- she was all delicacy and light. Willy Shives was her Nutcracker Prince, a true gentleman with regal bearing. Jenny Goodman was an animated, winsome Clara, with not a speck of saccharine, and Calvin Kitten was an endearing Fritz. The second-act divertissements were suitably vibrant, particularly Emily Patterson and Peter Kozak as Coffee from Arabia, rendered more like a temple dance from a romanticized India.

Much credit is due the dozens of children lovingly and artfully incorporated into each scene, expertly drilled but with plenty of pep left over. The children danced alongside the professionals in the party scene, cavorted with the soldiers, rats and mice in the battle by the tree, and served as escorts and adorable totems for the Tea from China, Nougats from Russia and the other folk dances in the second act.

In the end, this is what was most touching and meaningful of all -- the Joffrey version treats children tenderly, honoring their spunk and their imagination. This approach is a lovely notion with which to begin the holiday season.

The Nutcracker continues through Sunday (no performance today), with cast changes. All performances are sold out.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company