- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 24, 2004

“Nutcracker” at Thanksgiving may seem as if someone picked up the wrong cue card, but whatever. A holiday gathering is a holiday gathering, and a party is still a party.

The snowflakes and sugarplums showering down on the Kennedy Center this weekend reflect the same holiday spirit as our festive family turkey celebration and may be just the ticket for reminding weary holiday shoppers that magic and mystery lie ahead.

Robert Joffrey’s version of “The Nutcracker,” being danced by his company at the center this weekend, is crammed with charming nostalgic touches. Staging it was a labor of love, and it was the last ballet on which he worked before his untimely death.

Mr. Joffrey, who lived in New York City, haunted Greenwich Village shops for years, collecting antique dolls and toys for his own pleasure. He used some of them as inspiration for the quaint party scene of his first act.

His staging of “The Nutcracker” was the first major version to be given an American locale; other versions were set in one European country or another, but Mr. Joffrey chose a Midwestern setting in the middle of the 19th century for his Victorian-era production.

Now the country is awash in local settings. There is a Pittsburgh “Nutcracker” using the city’s historic architecture, a “Nutcracker” with an American Indian setting, and one using Cincinnati as a locale. Coming up this year is a new Washington-based version by the Washington Ballet.

The Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” is blessed with the picturesque scenery provided by veteran stage designer Oliver Smith. His front curtain sets the expectant tone, with its illustrations of old-fashioned dolls and toys, a nutcracker figuring prominently.

The first act features (small) grown-up dancers as children. As the story unfolds, characters morph from people in little Clara’s life to dream-association figures: Her parents, Mayor and Mrs. Stahlbaum, and her bothersome brother Fritz turn into the King, Queen and Prince in the Snow Scene.

A charming addition to the production is the group of 12 young girls dressed to look like Christmas trees, being danced by children from the Maryland Youth Ballet. The choreography has them swirling over the stage in a “Russian walk,” their feet moving unseen under long skirts, giving the impression they are gliding across ice on skates. (Mr. Joffrey took the design for their costumes from a 1903 postcard he found in an antique-shopping trip.)

The two big production numbers in “Nutcracker” were staged by Gerald Arpino, the artistic director of the company. The Snow Scene and the Waltz of the Flowers are full of soaring lifts and dashing floor patterns marked by Mr. Arpino’s unabashed brio.

Another distinguished contributor to this “Nutcracker” was Kermit Love of “Sesame Street” fame, who came up with the most towering Mother Ginger ever seen onstage.

The Kennedy Center appears committed to bringing its audiences an annual “Nutcracker,” and the past few years, the visiting troupes it has invited have been nothing if not various. We have had a Russian ice-skating version, a production by American Ballet Theatre loaded with unicorns and, last year, an edgy, sardonic “Nutcracker” by the Kirov Ballet. This year, with the Joffrey Ballet’s lively production, tradition and charm are again front and center.

WHAT: Joffrey Ballet in “The Nutcracker”

WHEN: Friday through Sunday at 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

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