The Joffrey Ballet's sparkling new version of "The Nutcracker," fresh from its world premiere in Iowa City just five days ago, made its Washington debut at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night, launching a two-week engagement.
The $1.5 million production is radiant with theatrical magic. The experience of it is very much like turning the pages of a child's pop-up book, in its chain of unexpected visual delights, ending with a spectacular aerial departure for Clara, the little girl whose Christmas dream is the core of the ballet.
The feeling it projects throughout is a reflection of the loving care its makers took in assembling it -- love for "The Nutcracker" as a gem of ballet history, for Tchaikovsky's endearing and ingenious music, for the beatific spirit of wonder that it celebrates.
There's nothing revolutionary about this "Nutcracker." It is, if anything, ultratraditional in approach, at the opposite end of the scale from productions that have looked for lecherous Freudian overtones in every gesture. The atmosphere is the one summoned by designer Oliver Smith's warm and charming Victorian parlor setting for the opening scene. With its glowing hearth, frosted windowpanes, family portraits, and a glimpse of book-crammed shelves in the library beyond, the room exudes an air of comfy domesticity and holiday cheer, and so do its occupants.
Even Dr. Drosselmeyer, the toymaker and magician who sets the whole plot in motion with his gift of a toy nutcracker to Clara, partakes of this mood. The only dark things about him are his black suit and cape, and the traditional eye-patch he wears. As portrayed by Alexander Grant, the cast's notable guest artist from England who is one of the ballet's most accomplished character dancers, Drosselmeyer is not in the least sinister. He's a benign, avuncular gentleman, with a bit of a histrionic flourish and imperious manner about him, but no nefarious secrets.
The dancing by the opening night cast -- featuring Glenn Edgerton in the dual role of Drosselmeyer's Nephew and the Nutcracker Prince, Dawn Caccamo as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Mary Barton as Clara and Edward Stierle as her brother Fritz -- boasts no star turns, though Stierle comes close in his second incarnation as the Snow Prince. Rather, the performances are distinguished by dramatic liveliness, pungent characterization, refinement of classical manners and crisp technical facility. The production was conceived and directed by Robert Joffrey, and every minute of it mirrors his vision of the work -- it's a "Nutcracker" that suits his company to a fare-thee-well, in its youthful verve, its openness and uncomplicated euphoria and its emphasis on affectionate teamwork. The American aspect that Joffrey wished to impart to the production, by having his designers -- principally Smith and costumer John David Ridge -- rely on Victorian relics of American provenance as guideposts, is harder to discern than one might imagine. There are small touches -- the figure of an American Indian doll amongst the Christmas tree decorations in Smith's disarming act curtain, for instance -- that suggest an American setting, but otherwise only the connoisseur's eye of a historian would perceive it.
Still, one might say the lighthearted showmanship of the production as a whole is American in flavor. One of the amazing things about it is that despite the dispersal of artistic responsibility among numerous collaborators -- Joffrey, his ballet master Scott Barnard, choreographers Gerald Arpino and George Verdak, artists Ridge, Smith and Kermit Love (who did the Mice costumes, Clara's Horse in the Snow scene and Mother Ginger in the divertissements), and lighting designer Thomas Skelton -- the staging has a wholly unified look to it, as if all its aspects flowed from a single imagination.
Among the highlights of the first act are the festive commotion of the party scene, the action of which always remains clearly legible despite the bustle; a winsome little galop for the guests and parents, accented by brisk foot patter; the adorably militant mice, and especially the "mounties" on mice-horses; the children attired as miniature snow trees; and Stierle's breathtaking jumps and pirouettes as the Snow Prince, the brilliant high point of the dancing. Anyone who has seen the old photographs of the original 1892 St. Petersburg production may also take special delight in the snow puff wands the Snowflakes wag at the act's conclusion.
The second act, in the Kingdom of the Sweets, is set in an airy, column-lined pavilion in which the dominant decor colors are those of plums, grapes and strawberries. The Divertissements have some witty introductions -- the Spanish dancer emerges from behind an outsize fan; the Chinese couples pops out of a teapot; the Arabian danseuse is unfurled along the floor from her scarf by her partner. The notably acrobatic Russian Dance, reportedly choreographed by Joffrey himself, is especially winsome and danced with the right folklike gusto. Caccamo and Edgerton danced the quite traditional Grand Pas de Deux without any great ardor, but with admirable poise and stylistic finish all the same.
The most eye-popping confections of the ballet were the entrance of Mother Ginger as a 14-foot-high puppet, from beneath whose voluminous tiered skirts there skipped her bouncy, diminutive bevy of Polichinelles; and the parting touch, a huge balloon descending from the flies to scoop up Clara and Drosselmeyer and whisk them off to a lofty dreamland.
Allan Lewis conducted the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra in whirlwind account of the score, often a little too breathless in tempo to allow the music its full lyrical span. This may have been merely a symptom of opening-night edginess; it seems more than likely that as the production settles in, the musicians will naturally yield to a more relaxed approach.