Joffrey Ballet's 'Nutcracker' at Kennedy Center is a cup of good cheer

By Pamela Squires
Thursday, November 25, 2010; 9:31 PM

There was a collective gasp at the Kennedy Center as ballerina Victoria Jaiani was flung high into the air before being caught and whisked low into a swan dive during the Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" on Wednesday. Jaiani made this "Nutcracker" tick, taking it from fluff to fabulous. She is one Sugar Plum Fairy who will continue to dance in your head.

Perhaps it is her Russian-style training that gives her the warmth and expressiveness that carry to the back row. She was trained in the Republic of Georgia, where she was born. Technically, she nails everything effortlessly. When technique is that good, it fades into the background. It is then that dancers such as Jaiani seem larger than life.

The Joffrey's version of this holiday classic is now 23 years old. Created by the company's late founder, Robert Joffrey, it retains those elements that have made it recognizable as the "Joffrey Nutcracker." There is the Christmas tree that grows, human-size dolls that come to life, the 20-foot-high Mother Ginger puppet, sets by Oliver Smith and the original staging by George Verdak after the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo 1940 production, itself revived from the original Mariinsky Ballet's Petipa/Ivanov production in 1892.

All of that makes this perennial production into a cup of good cheer. It's a Victorian Christmas with frilly petticoats and bows and perfect sausage curls. The men are polite, the women demure and the servants attentive. From the first strains of the overture, the familiar music breeds enormous content.

Anastacia Holden as Clara danced the part of an adolescent adeptly without resorting to the overdone simpering that has made many a drinking-age Clara look like an aging Lolita. Matthew Adamczyk is a young Dr. Drosselmeyer, made sinister with a patch over one eye and plenty of opportunity to swirl his oversize cape. Those cape-swirling opportunities stretch through Act 2 because in this version, Dr. Drosselmeyer accompanies Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets, an unfortunate additional invention that injects a sinister air into the otherwise bonbon of a second act. Valerie Robin and Fabrice Calmels danced Clara's mother and father, who turn into the Snow Queen and the Snow Prince, with enthusiasm and precision. Miguel Angel Blanco as the Nutcracker Prince was a classic "white tights" prince with the requisite elegant long legs, limpid eyes and liquid jumps. Cuban-trained, he generated enough heat on his own not be appear frosty against the warmth of his partner, Jaiani.

The happy familiarity of audiences with "The Nutcracker" has little to do with the choreography. With few exceptions (such as the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy"), the choreography changes radically from company to company, and from year to year. Audiences more likely recognize Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" music, a Christmas standard. Really, there is little plot. All of Act 2 is a series of divertissements, which are happy digressions only loosely related to the plot that has morphed into "The Nutcracker's" heart and soul. The "Grand Pas de Deux" for the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince remains the add-on that it was in the original 19th-century production to showcase bravura dancing. Perhaps the longevity of this ballet lies in its curious ability to change while remaining familiar. Most important, it makes audiences happy.

"The Nutcracker" continues through Sunday.

Squires is a freelance writer.

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