Dance Review: The Joffrey Ballet's 'The Nutcracker' at the Kennedy Center

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

Chocolate from Spain was nobody's candy bar -- when she unfolded a leg into the air in an arabesque as steely as a matador's sword, you could have set a tea tray on it. Valerie Robin's heart-stopping performance in this cameo role in the Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" Thursday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House was a good old-fashioned star turn, brimming with the firm technical command and blazing confidence a true ballerina brings to the stage. But Robin was by no means the evening's only delight.

From start to finish, this production, which continues through tomorrow, makes a resounding case that "The Nutcracker" is -- dare I say it -- a perfect ballet. There is a musical inevitability and a strong emotional pull in this version of the holiday classic, created 20 years ago by the company's late founder, Robert Joffrey. A collector of antiques, he conceived this production in loving tribute to mid-1800s Americana, and his connoisseur's eye is everywhere in evidence. The ballet is a luxurious confection of rich period costuming and detail, as well as efficient stagecraft.

More important, Joffrey's "Nutcracker" is a theatrical event of irresistible power. But what drives this ballet forward is not necessarily the drama, though there is a tingly buildup of anticipation in the first act's Christmas Eve party. Neither does the momentum stem from any sort of psychological subtext, such as you find in other productions of the ballet -- a budding romance, say, or the poignancy of the central character, young Clara, confronting her approaching adulthood. This "Nutcracker" wisely doesn't freight itself with any such contemporary concerns.

Rather, what is front and center here is simply the comforting and uplifting spectacle of the best of ourselves, a spectrum of timeless virtues telegraphed through the clear, open style of the choreography and the exemplary generosity of the whole enterprise, from the outgoingness of the dancers to the inclusion of so many children. There is no meanness, no crusty realism, nothing evil in the slightest. Even Fritz, the teasing brother who breaks Clara's new nutcracker doll, is spared overexamination. He's not spoiled, not neglected, just high on Christmas. You'll find no hard feelings here.

But on the subject of feelings, a caveat: If you are one to tear up at the sight of earnest little children in cute costumes, bring an extra hanky. It will gets lots of use. Among the local ballet students injecting authentic joy into the first scene is one exceptionally poised youngster in a vintage wheelchair, Mary Cassell, whose unaffected fascination with all the party doings inspires you to view the whole spectacle through her eyes. Later on, wee ones pop out from under the magically growing tree, and, in one of the ballet's master strokes, appear as plump, frosty little evergreens in the Land of Snow. There is a whiff of the lyrical grace of Michel Fokine's "Les Sylphides" in the way they group and regroup themselves in this scene, a nod to ballet history that the scholarly Joffrey tucked in here and there.

Thursday's cast was sterling throughout, led by Victoria Jaiani as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Fabrice Calmels as the Nutcracker Prince. Megan Quiroz showed off her versatility, as well as her gossamer flexibility, in two roles: Snow Queen and Coffee from Arabia, partnered in both by Thomas Nicholas. Brian McSween was a charismatic Dr. Drosselmeyer, a man who could almost make you believe he truly possessed a magic touch; even his fingertips shuddered in expressive intensity as he cast his spells.

In a neat bit of circularity, two Joffrey dancers who just a few years ago were students of the Silver Spring-based Maryland Youth Ballet had featured parts: Allison Walsh as a vivacious Clara, and John Mark Giragosian as a Fritz who was deeply in touch with his inner pigtail-pulling 10-year-old. The Joffrey's Leslie B. Dunner conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in an especially bright, full-bodied account of the familiar Tchaikovsky score.

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