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Flash Review 1, 12-18: Extraordinary Things
A Chest'Nut' from the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago

By Jessica Swoyer
Copyright 2001 Jessica Swoyer

CHICAGO -- There is no better Christmas than this year's to revisit a world where the hero wins, and not only does he get the girl but enchants her with dreams of sugar plum fairies and snowflakes. This year we have witnessed a revived craving for fantasy -- partly inspired by the fascinating magic series by J.K. Rowling. Characters such as Harry Potter may not have been created in the same century as Clara in E.T.A. Hoffman's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," but generally characters surpass time; ones such as these defy time in a most spectacular way.

Robert Joffrey's production of "The Nutcracker," performed Wednesday by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago at the Auditorium Theater, is not short on spectacle. It was as fascinating to the little girl seated two seats away from me as to the adults behind me. And no wonder; this production has quite an eclectic pedigree. Conceived and directed by Joffrey, it combines original choreography by Gerald Arpino with staging by George Verdak and Scott Barnard, after the 1940 Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production itself revived by Alexandra Federova after the original Petipa/Ivanov Maryinsky Ballet version.

In the first act, the curtain rises to a house literally waiting for festivities to begin: All characters on stage are frozen in the moment. Then, to the tick of the eerie grandfather clock, the dancers begin to move in slow-motion, foreshadowing something powerful is about to manipulate the magical night. Finally, full lights bring all to normally paced life and the guests (who we've seen prior in a series of crossovers journeying to the party) arrive. This includes the curious Dr. Drosselmeyer, danced by JBC veteran Adam Sklute, and his nephew (also the Nutcracker Prince), portrayed Wednesday by Calvin Kitten.

The party scene is full and lively as Drosselmeyer incredibly brings dolls to life, children are presented with gifts and adults dance grand waltzes and jigs. It is in this first scene that Clara dancer Heather Aagard is presented with the unusual but dearly cherished nutcracker doll. After the party has finished, the allure of the doll brings Clara back downstairs and under the holiday tree, just before the clock strikes midnight, and not a creature is stirring, not even a -- oh, wait, there is a mouse!

Wonderfully imaginative touches include mice scampering from the fireplace as Drosselmeyer, standing atop of the clock, bats his cape-like wings in rhythm with the twelve strokes of the clock, his head acting as the hour hand sharply pointing in the directions from 1 to 12. With a huge flash of light, the Nutcracker comes to life and the battle between the soldiers and mice begins.

In the Land of Snow, a Freudian interpretation of Clara's dream-like experience finds the Snow Queen and King danced by Clara's mother and father, Joffrey company dancers Emily Patterson and Samuel Pergande. This winter wonderland transforms from the tripped-out battle scene -- where the mice look more like terminators with gold and silver metal heads, red beady eyes, long and sharp, pointy noses, and gladiator armor -- to a thicket of ice-frosted pine trees enveloped by clouds of dry ice creating the appearance of snow drifts.

he Waltz of the Snowflakes, choreographed by Arpino, is woven into the Snow King's and Queen's pas de deux, as well as the Snow Prince's solo, danced by Patrick Simenello. Dancing by the corps is so quick and light you'd think it would melt if paused for a second; and the romantic -- though this time slightly clumsy -- partnering by Patterson and Pergande offsets Pyotr Tchaikovsky's string-heavy score. Also highlighted was a pirouette a la seconde and tour combination cleanly executed by Simenello.

Fluttering, stationary bourees by the dancers from Waltz of the Flowers opened the colorful pastel Kingdom of Sweets in Act II. This lavish affair was as decadent for the audience as it was for Clara. Presented to Clara by the Sugar Plum Fairy (Jennifer Goodman) and the prince, Kitten, were treats from afar. Chocolate from Spain was danced by Elizabeth Mertz. Coffee from Arabia unfolded as a sumptuous duet by Valerie Robin and Peter Kozak. In this duet the incorporation of a long flowing yellow scarf acted as a snake entranced by the dances of its charmers. Tea from China danced by Taryn Kaschock, and Guoping Wang was short and sweet as Kaschock once again proved her control of the movement, finishing triple pirouettes clean and coming off pointe as she pleased. Nougats from Russia elicited huge enthusiasm danced by Stacy Joy Keller, Orlando Canova, John Gluckman and Michael Levine. Suzanne Lopez, part of a trio set to the music commonly known as the Reed Flutes graced us with her smile as a Marzipan Shepardess.

The Waltz of the Flowers was kaleidoscopic in its colors as well as its spatial formations. The delicacy of Tchaikovsky's harp introduction to this section was accented by Arpino's inclusion of paper flower petals that in timely fashion fluttered from the dancers' hands. Maia Wilkins and Trinity Hamiliton, seeming to truly enjoy themselves, alternated in a succession of petite pas de deux; Wilkins's partner struggled to hold back a laugh, perhaps due to an inside joke. Regardless, Hamilton and Wilkins, both longtime company members, fused the rest of the 14 dancers in a presentation of grace and flawlessness.

Goodman and Kitten performed the Sugar Plum pas as though it were part of their pedestrian life. Although looking very comfortable, they didn't lack for sparkle; neither did the finesse of Goodman's phrasing or the strength displayed in Kitten's partnering. The pair solidified and emphasized the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago's strength as an ensemble.

All of the JBC dancers presented themselves as individuals within a company which dances as one.

Robert Joffrey's production of "The Nutcracker" runs through Sunday at the Auditorium Theater.

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