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Celebrating the Holiday With Joffrey


"The Nutcracker" takes place on Christmas Eve, but the holiday favorite is danced on that night about as rarely as dolls become handsome princes.

As it turned out, the magic of the evening didn't ensure a special event when the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago opened a seven-performance run Tuesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Some of the reasons are built into the familiar production. Finished by Robert Joffrey--with help from friends Gerald Arpino, George Verdak and Scott Barnard--a few months before his death in 1988, it emphasizes family closeness, but also has storytelling weaknesses and partly reworks Tchaikovsky's score.

Joffrey had wanted an American "Nutcracker," so he set it in "an American city in the 1850s." But there is more to it than just the Currier-and-Ives-inspired scenery, costumes and designs by Oliver Smith, John David Ridge and Kermit Love, respectively. There is something distinctly American, too, in the generous abundance at the Christmas party. More gifts are handed out in this production than in any other, and to all the children.

Sasha Anawalt's book "The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company" (Scribner's, 1996), says that Joffrey saw himself as Drosselmeyer, the stage manager in this version, and he saw Clara, the little girl at the center of all the orchestrated dream events, as the audience he was trying to win. That may help explain Drosselmeyer's constant presence throughout the ballet, and the hard-sell atmosphere that sometimes characterizes it.

Certainly Adam Sklute could not inhabit the stage manager role in this production as persuasively as had Alexander Grant, the Royal Ballet veteran who first danced it. Still, he tried, flourishing his cape and hurling magic dust in the air gamely.

Nor could Jennifer Goodman, as Clara, look anything but sweet and appreciative, since that is all she's given to do.

Calvin Kitten, as her brother Fritz, looked no more or less inane than any other adult required to masquerade as a child among real children in this production, but he came into his own as a virtuoso Snow Prince and later a Chinese soloist. Now if he would only mug less.

But the biggest disappointments came in Act 2. Lorena Feijoo and David Paul Kierce were poorly matched as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince.

Feijoo had poise and amplitude in the upper body, and she whipped off a series of impressive turns in the coda of the pas de deux, ending with stop-action precision. But she also was cool and inhabited a different world from her partner.

Kierce, who also played Drosselmeyer's Nephew in this production, lacked elegance in placement and energy of line. He blurred shapes in the air and smeared landings. To his credit, however, he was a supportive partner.

In other roles, Julie Janus made a regal Snow Queen opposite the cautious Snow King of Ernesto Quenedit. Beatriz Rodriguez was a vivacious Columbine to the attentive Harlequin of Guillermo Leyva, but she lacked her usual elan in the Spanish dance.

Cynthia Giannini and Patrick Simonello made alert and crisp military dolls in the first act. Jenny Sandler and Pierre Lockett were the sinuous Arabian dancers.

The corps, particularly the women, looked clean and unified in the hectic waltzes choreographed by artistic director and company co-founder Arpino. The men were less assured.

Thomas H. Jensen conducted the Pacific Symphony with emphasis on speed that suited the fast-paced choreography. The orchestra played Tchaikovsky's beloved score well, but sounded thin, undernourished and amplified, although the official word from the Joffrey was that only the harp and celesta were amplified.

The not-quite-sold-out house regarded most of the ballet as a true Christmas treat.

* The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago continues performances of "The Nutcracker," with this and other casts of principals, at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. today through Saturday and 2 p.m. Friday through Sunday. $18-$59. (714) 740-7878.

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