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Susan Weinrebe
Performance Reviews
United States
Chicago, IL

The Joffrey Ballet - The Nutcracker

by Susan Weinrebe
December 22, 2004
Chicago, IL

The Joffrey Ballet - The Nutcracker

A Robert Joffrey Production

Founders, Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino
Artistic Director, Gerald Arpino
Ballet Masters, Charthel Arthur, Mark Goldweber
Children's Ballet Master, Carla Graham-White
Conductor, Music Director, Dr. Leslie B. Dunner
Public Relations Services, The Silverman Group

Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, Chicago
Auditorium Theatre

Review by Susan Weinrebe
December 22, 2004

The Nutcracker: A ballet in two acts based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King (1816), Music by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, conceived and directed by Robert Joffrey, choreography for "Waltz of the Snowflakes" & "Waltz of the Flowers" by Gerald Arpino, Scenery by Oliver Smith, Costumes by John David Ridge, Creative Design for The Mice, Mother Ginger and Clara's Horse by Kermit Love, Lighting by Kevin Dreyer after original designs by Thomas Skelton, Puppeteers Francis Kane and Blair Thomas, Conductor, Dr. Leslie B. Dunner, Children's Choir Director, Gloria Brown, Choir, Whitney M. Young High School Choir, Performed by the Company, featuring Julianne Kepley as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Michael Levine as the Nutcracker Prince and Dr. Drosselmeyer's nephew, Michael Smith as the King of the Mice, Kathleen Thielhelm as the Snow Queen, Brian McSween as the Snow King, Masayoshi Onuki as Fritz, the Snow Prince and Tea from China, Michael Anderson as Dr. Drosselmeyer, and Stacy Joy Keller as Clara.

With an opulent aura of wonderment and magic we enter the realm of The Nutcracker performed by the Joffrey Ballet. The marvelous thing about a tradition is that it's, well, traditional and there was no disappointment of expectations with either the presentation or performance of this beloved annual experience.

We are ready for the party to begin, from the first notes of the overture and pantomime by Drosselmeyer and a street vendor, set before a backdrop of many of the toys to come, the Nutcracker being central to the group. And then the curtain rises upon a breathtakingly imagined Victorian parlor. It was the Victorians, after all, who gave us many of our notions about Christmas as a decorative and gift-giving event. For them, if abundance was good, a lot more was even better!

We are treated to scenery that creates layers upon layers of decorative depth and ornament, a confection of swaying gowns and elegant male garb in hues of mauve and violet and lavender, a gathering of family and friends with wonderful characterizations of the older relatives, servants dashing about and a plethora of children, gifts, activity, cheer. The characterizations created by this ensemble give the dignity of individual performance to each person on stage, even the children, so one has almost too much to take in all at once.

Dr. Drosselmeyer, swathed in black with his eye patch and swirling cape, has often seemed less as a benign godfather with wondrous magic tricks than as a foreboding presence at the party. Here, he still performs tricks with colored scarves and makes the wooden nutcracker appear from his cloak through sleight of hand, but I loved that Michael Anderson portrayed him as a beneficent companion and guide through Clara's travels to the Land of Snow and Kingdom of Sweets. With elegant line and gesture, he participated in her delight at all she saw.

Stacy Joy Keller, the evening's Clara, used her acting skill to convincingly portray a young girl. Whether demonstrating courage in her confrontation with the mice in the protection of her Nutcracker or later, as the honored child before whom all the fantastical beings of each scene performed, she captured the nuances of very youthful movement and expression. I especially enjoyed the interplay of give and take between her and Drosselmeyer as a counterpoint to the featured stage activity.

Delights to come were foretold by Drosselmeyer's presentation of several mechanical dolls. I suppose if one didn't bring appetizers or bake desserts for the party, then this is what was expected! The life-size toys are hints that this will be an evening of magical happenings. Columbine and Harlequin emerge from a cabbage and Christmas pudding, looking like "living spotlights" in their bright yellow costumes, a contrast to the soft hues of the gathering. They perform with the angled arm and creaky movements antithetical to the fluidity of romantic ballet, but just right for their portrayal as hinged dolls. The sentry box pair, stiff and impassive as the real deal on guard at the palace, was carried off stage still rigid as boards to the amusement of the audience. Was everyone else marveling at the control and strength required to lift and transport a rigid full-sized person with no apparent effort? It is such feats of ease we expect from ballet dancers.

At the moment just before midnight, the time that is neither night nor day, the owl clock strikes. Drosselmeyer mirrors the chimes with head position and wing-like flaps of his cape, the Christmas tree grows to the rafters, and denizens of the night, the mice, appear.

The battle between the mice and soldiers is always one that draws laughs from the children, and surrounded as I was by children in this full house, their delight was audible. Sometimes portrayed in a more sinister city rat-like way, the mice here were fun and funny. The King of Mice, Michael Smith, wore a metallic headpiece. His duel with the Nutcracker, now given human form by Drosselmeyer's timely application of smoke, a cape flip (and trap door), is one of the two most humorously conceived parts of the production. It's also the bridge from reality to fantasy and romance.

Through the artistry of scenery, lighting, and costume, the imaginary temperature drops as we are taken to The Land of Snow. It is the confluence of these stagecrafts that keeps The Nutcracker from becoming a chestnut. Like gazing into a glass snowball scene, the rolling fog, drifting snow, and forest of painted trees in an icy grove created an ethereal sense of transport to the sort of place where a child's imaginings are made real.

Accompanied by her guide and Nutcracker come to life as a prince, Clara is enthroned on a full-size dappled steed (once the drawing room rocking horse) as she observes the performances conceived in frost and crystalline light. Kathleen Thielhelm, the Snow Queen and Brian McSween, her Snow King danced with the grace and sparkle that is to be expected of such ephemera. The classical elements of romantic dance were embodied in their presentation.

Masayoshi Onuki, previously dancing the part of Fritz, Clara's annoying brother, later on Tea from China, and here the Snow Prince, is breathtaking. The strength of his pas de chat leaps and elevated suspensions were riveting, and anytime he was on stage he commanded attention for his presence and ebullient energy.

With a flurry, the Company fills in the scene as Snowflakes and Snow Winds perform with the esprit and unity expected of the Joffrey. In this troupe, one may see the same performer variously as part of the corps and a soloist within the same ballet. Too, the rotation of four casts in this production keeps everything fresh, so the dancers, "…come back looking forward to their dancing," according to Michael Levine.

Generosity towards the young dancers was evident whenever they were on stage. In almost every scene throughout the ballet there were children performing parts as guests, mice, trees, dolls and mentors it seemed. Given many moments in the spotlight, as they performed their roles, it is to the credit of the children's teachers, families, and themselves, that they showed such a budding degree of professionalism. Undoubtedly, we will enjoy some of these same dancers in their own grown-up roles.

Once in the Kingdom of Sweets, Clara enjoys every child's fantasy, a parade of exotic treats and dolls come to life for her edification. Like having to choose one morsel from a box, it is a dilemma to select one of the Divertissements from the rest.

The Marzipan Shepherdesses, looking Dresdenly fragile in their delicate pastels and perky hats, were greatly applauded after their solo. Nougats whirling madly in their traditional Russian garb broke the energy barrier with the power of their leaps. Thankfully, this audience demonstrated that they knew the difference between a ballet and a basketball by not chug-clapping as if at a sporting event. Tea from China bubbled and popped and demonstrated the blessing of having springs for legs. Coffee from Arabia featured two of the tallest dancers in the company, Valerie Robin and Sam Pergande, well partnered both for size and sinuosity. Like an aroma, coiling and beckoning, they used a length of scarf and each other's bodies to physically mirror the music in minor key. When Pergande extended Ms. Robin's leg at a perfect vertical angle to touch the side of her cheek, the audience gasped. Chocolate from Spain, Maia Wilkins, possesses that "IT" quality that demands and holds center stage. The nuances of her fan work, eyes, style, and technique make this a dancer who owns the real estate.

Everyone knows that Mother Ginger and her Polchinelles (male Punch figures from the Punch and Judy shows) will provide broadside humor. As a huge puppet with a voluminous skirt, that parts to allow her little puppets to pour out, cavort and return, her presence afforded great glee to the audience.

Victorians used flowers to express symbolic meanings. As a rear screen projection of a soft focus bouquet, the Waltz of the Flowers, Cavaliers, and Consorts brings the company together to demonstrate the strength of their ensemble work as petals drift down upon them. With all the petals, snow, and glitter on the stage, I was concerned for the artists, but not only was there no misstep, all was harmony and fluid movement as the glorious blooms performed jetés and lifts.

Presiding over the sweets and flowers are Julianne Kepley, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Michael Levine, the Nutcracker Prince. They were a wonderful pair both apart and together. The smile which brightened the stage was no less an integral part of Ms. Kepley's presence than the blinding turns she executed with abandon during her solo. Mr. Levine's bravura solo work showed off this dancer to great advantage, but shone especially when he partnered Ms. Kepley. As a heartbreakingly lyrical violin played, they danced their grand pas de deux with a trust and generosity that was palpable. Ms. Kepley later told me how much she enjoyed this partnership because each performance allowed her to, "…look forward to new discoveries when you have someone you really like." It showed.

When is a good time to leave a party? Why, when you still wish to stay. So it was with this performance of the Joffrey's The Nutcracker. If you missed it this year, make attendance and support of the Joffrey part of your season's tradition, and journey with them to a land of sweet delight.

Maia Wilkins
Photo courtesy of Herb Migdoll

Julianne Kepley and Michael Levine
Photo courtesy of Herb Migdoll

Dance of the Snowflakes
Photo courtesy of Herb Migdoll

Maia Wilkins and Michael Levine
Photo courtesy of Jessie Weinrebe

Julianne Kepley and Michael Levine
Photo courtesy of Jessie Weinrebe

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