Friday, November 29, 2013

The Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker"

The night before Thanksgiving, I made my way to the Kennedy Center to see a performance of The Nutcracker. I saw it last year (performed by Ballet West), and I was very excited to continue my holiday tradition. The one downside to seeing this ballet is that it is frequently marketed to families, so there are always many children in the audience. And that night, one of them just happened to be sitting next to me. She was sitting on her father's lap, wriggling all over the place trying to get comfortable. While waiting for the show to start, she kept asking when it would begin, then started counting the seconds incessantly. To amuse herself, she played the game of "What's this?" with her father, pointing to different body parts: nose, lower lip, upper lip, etc. She also kept pulling at his tie, and even flat out told him it was ugly. Towards the end of the performance she started tapping her feet making a ruckus because she was becoming antsy. That man has the patience of a god. But onto the actual ballet...

Although I had never seen the Joffrey Ballet perform, their name is famous enough to expect greatness. They were the first dance company to perform at the White House, the first American company to dance in Russia, and the first dance company to be featured on the cover of Time magazine. Of course it isn't very fair to compare dance companies: each is made up of many unique artists with their own creative talents. But, I will say, I preferred last year's performance of this beloved Tchaikovsky ballet.

First of all, this one opened up with a hand-painted screen of the Christmas tree scene, with toys all around the tree and the nutcracker himself front and center. Although I can appreciate the work that it took to create this screen, the colors came out muted, and it looked crafty rather than artistic. The rest of the set was beautiful, giving the impression of a huge room with tall ceilings and a chandelier hanging right in the middle. Why not open right off with that? The Christmas tree was also kind of sad, since it was only two-dimensional (not like a real tree at all!). Although it did grow taller, it looked very unstable, and I thought at any moment it was going to tip over onto the dancers.

But onto the dancers themselves. The first thing I noticed about the company when looking through the program is how diverse the group is. In general, I think most people see ballet as a "white" activity, and I think all in all, that's still true. But there were dancers of all ethnicities and nationalities in this performance. However, I will say that the Joffrey Ballet took diversity a little too far when they included a child in a wheelchair at the Christmas tree party. Putting a child that is physically handicapped in a ballet is like throwing him into a swimming pool: that activity is all about the freedom of movement, which he does not possess. All I could figure is that he was the child of a major donor or something, and that's why he had to be included. I was also surprised that, with such a focus on people of all different kinds, they featured an African American woman as a maid and an Asian-American man as a servant: it's like they were pigeon-holing these traditionally-oppressed peoples back into subservient roles. They also featured a rocking horse wearing a Native American headdress, which seemed unnecessary. Mixed messages, no?

Now on to my comparison with Ballet West. For one, I didn't really care for the costumes in this Joffrey production. The gowns of the ladies during the first scene were fine, but I really liked how Ballet West matched the costumes of the men, women, and children; every family was color-coded in matching clothes, which I thought was really cute. When the nutcracker comes to life, I thought his mask was creepy, and the rat costumes were just thin gray outfits, unlike the adorable rolly-polly rodents of Ballet West. The death of the Rat King was also not as good as last year. I didn't even see him die: he was just carried offstage. Last year, the dancer who played the Rat King was very funny, laying on his back with all four limbs in the air with rigor mortis. I did, however, like how in this ballet, Clara's parents (played by Fabrice Calmels and Kara Zimmerman) were also featured as the Snow King and Queen. It makes sense that in a little girl's dream, she would picture people she knows, like her parents. And this rat army featured cavalry, so that was quite cute seeing rats riding upon pony-rats. But I found it odd that, in this show, there was a curtain call after the first act, as if the ballet were over. The only reason I could think of for doing this would be to let little kids think they had seen the whole show so the families could get home early.

Throughout the performance, I felt that the male dancers were much stronger than the ballerinas, which seems unheard of. The Snow Prince (John Mark Gitagosian) completely stole the show from the Snow King and Queen, and along with the Snowflakes (ballerinas) there were "Snow Winds" which I've never heard of, but that was one more way for the company to feature more men in the performance. And at the end, when the Nutcracker Prince (Dylan Gutierrez) had his solo, he was incredible, barely making a sound when he landed after jumps and such; the music was off-beat when he finished, but I blame the orchestra, not him.

More on the second act. The ballerina who played the Sugar Plum Fairy, April Daly, who looks a lot like Mira Sorvino, has the epitomic body of a dancer. But though her mouth was smiling during her performance, her forehead made her look like she was in pain (which maybe she was). She was quite good, but again, the Nutcracker Prince certainly upstaged her. I did not care for the "Waltz of the Flowers" (the equivalent of the Snowflakes but for the Sugar Plum Fairy). The costumes were more like dresses than actual tutus, and I didn't think they were important enough to call out by name in the program; there were also Cavaliers, again another chance for the male dancers to be a part of the production, who wore colorful tights that simply do not show off the male figure like white tights do. The "Divertissements" were hit or miss, too. First of all, I didn't like that all of the dancers came out on stage all at once before their individual dances. It took away from the surprise of seeing what each costume will look like. But, I thought using a fan while dancing was a nice touch for the Chocolate from Spain, and I usually don't like the use of props in dance. The Coffee from Arabia was BY FAR the best performance out of the entire show. This company made the dance a "duet" if you will, with Mahallia Ward and Calmels dancing together. The dance was extremely sexy and sensual, and both of their perfect bodies made the scene almost erotic. I was very disappointed to flip through the program and see that Ward would not dance as the Snow Queen or the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Tea from China dance was forgettable, and the Nougats from Russia were not nearly as good as Ballet West's performance; this is the only dance that is usually all male, and this time they added a woman, which I thought took away from the performance. The Marzipan Shepherdesses looked like they were missing their lambs (which would have been a cute touch, actually). And I was appalled that Mother Ginger was not played by a man, but rather a large puppet (the puppet was controlled by Francis Kane, who isn't even listed in the program). The only good thing about her part were the adorable Easter-egg-colored costumes that the children wore when emerging from her voluminous dress. The second act was far better than the first, but I wasn't completely in love.

It's not all their fault, though, that I was underwhelmed. Although I enjoy the music of The Nutcracker, and I like traditional ballet/dance, the story itself is not actually one of my favorites. For one, I do not like some of the characters of the ballet, so it is difficult for me to like the dancers who play them. The character of Dr. Drosselmeyer, the Godfather of the main children, Clara and Fritz, always confuses me: sometimes he's old, sometimes he's young, but no matter what, he looks like Kevin Kline playing a creepy pedophile. And Clara annoys me as well. Is she supposed to be a child or a young woman? She's always played by one of the main dancers (not a child dancer), but I do think she's supposed to be a little girl. So then when the Nutcracker prince shows up, he looks like a pedophile, too! I think I just have a hard time with the juxtaposition of ballet and children. To me, ballet is very sexy: it includes people with incredible bodies who are wearing next-to-nothing and touching each other quite intimately. When you add children to that, it just makes it seem dirty and takes away from the glamor of the entire idea of ballet. This particular performance featured WAY too many children. Kids should be in the opening scene, and come out from Mother Ginger's skirt, and that's it. But they played the rolls of dolls throughout the performance, popping up everywhere when I wish they had just gone back stage and taken a nap.

If you thought this review is mean, read what I wrote about Ballets with a Twist. No, I'm not a dancer: I just know what I like (or don't like...)!

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