It always feels out of sync to see “The Nutcracker” in November, well before the holiday that the ballet celebrates. But watching the Joffrey Ballet’s production on the eve of Thanksgiving at the Kennedy Center was a more off-kilter experience than usual.
This is the last time we’ll see the vintage American version that the company’s late founder Robert Joffrey directed in 1987. Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon will create a production for the Joffrey next year. A lame-duck look hung over the current affair, which was not as dramatically lit as in past years. Nor did it feel as alive.
The orchestra, too, lacked power in its performance of the Tchaikovsky, especially in the battle scene. The music could not compete with a patron whose violent chest cold announced itself to the rows around her throughout the evening. She was not alone, as similar coughing jags rang throughout the theater.
Despite the challenges, there were lovely moments.
Surely there is no prettier first act in the annals of “Nutcrackers” than this one, with its Victorian Christmas-card colors and the fluid way dancing is woven all through it, whether in the cleanly channeled high spirits of the children or the modest waltzes of their parents.
The battle scene is one of the most musically attuned and artfully executed that I can remember, with cute dolls skittering through the action, rats and mice of all sizes, a thick enclosure of smoke, and energetic soldiers guiding the youngsters with discreet nudges here and there.
The many children, drawn from local dance schools, were the highlight, as they have been routinely in this production.
Scarcely can any other “Nutcracker” have made better use of little ones or given them more responsibility; they commanded the stage with good cheer and peppy acrobatics in the Mother Ginger sequence, for instance.
Those students with professional dreams can look to Victoria Jaiani’s magisterial Sugar Plum Fairy and to Temur Suluashvili, the Nutcracker Prince, for inspiration. They possessed impeccable manners, airy elegance and a touch of royal remove.
I’ve enjoyed this version since its first seasons, and I’m quite sorry to see it go. But as with any ballet, “The Nutcracker” needs to be performed with full commitment, as if its cast and production team believe it’s the best “Nutcracker” on Earth. What came through here is that the Joffrey already has its eye on the new “Nutcracker” coming round the bend.
The Nutcracker through Sunday at the Kennedy Center Opera House. 202-467-4600. www.kennedy-center.org.