Joffrey’s Nutcracker

By Sheri Candler

One week from today, the Joffrey Ballet’s production of Nutcracker opens in Los Angeles at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion followed by several weeks of Chicago performances at the Auditorium Theater. Many of you may not be familiar with what makes Robert Joffrey’s rendition of Nutcracker distinct. Here’s a little history.

The Nutcracker was first performed at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 17, 1892, a collaboration of world renowned choreographer, Marius Petipa, composer Peter Tchaikovsky and the story adaptation by Alexandre Dumas of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Its first performance was a complete failure. Audiences and critics panned it.

The first performance of The Nutcracker by a ballet company in the United States was by the San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1944 under the direction of William Christensen. But it was the 1954 performances choreographed by George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet that lead to the work becoming a perennial favorite. Many productions by American ballet companies today are based on his choreography.

While the original story takes place in mid eighteenth century Europe, Robert Joffrey longed to see a version of the story take place in America circa 1850s. His ideal Christmas story would look like a Currier and Ives card, pastoral and content.

Planning of his production happened on and off for 10 years, culminating in its debut on December 10, 1987 at the Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa, with the production then embarking on a national tour. Joffrey based his rendition on one that Alexandra Fedorova mounted for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1940s. In the lead up to the premiere, Robert Joffrey was very ill and nearing death. He wasn’t well enough to oversee every aspect of the production but his vision was carried forward. He knew how he wanted the sets and the costumes to look. ”I want this ‘Nutcracker’ to be childlike; I don’t want any overtones of deep psychological meaning” he told Gerald Arpino. “The Nutcracker enables each of us to revisit the land of innocence, our childhood.”

Joffrey insisted on new choreography for  the Snowflakes scene and the Waltz of the Flowers and entrusted Arpino to develop it. Arpino made it clear that he wanted more modern technique used and that he wanted men to take on active roles in these pieces. Traditionally, these scenes are only performed by women. Joffrey agreed. Arpino choreographed amazing movements for the Snow Wind men complete with swirling snow.

Each flower costume in the Waltz of the Flowers scene was meticulously described to designers by Joffrey. There are 12 individually designed flowers and the original costumes featured hand painted silk petals. He wanted the look of real flowers, not women dancing to the music of Waltz of the Flowers. Arpino’s men give the flowers gentle lifts that make them look as if they are petals blown by the wind.

Also unique in Joffrey’s production is the role of Herr Drosselmeyer. In the more classical productions, the character of Drosselmeyer stays in the first act. Robert Joffrey saw the character as guiding Clara and her prince through the kingdom of the sweets and making introductions for them. “Drosselmeyer takes Clara–and takes all of us–through the entire work. He’s in every scene. He’s a loving Drosselmeyer–and very much like Robert Joffrey; you can see a lot of him in the character. He’s whimsical, kind and gentle, also very private and mysterious,” said Arpino.

“It was Bob’s last gift to all of us, and nothing could be more appropriate,” said Arpino on what became Robert Joffrey’s final theatrical production.

The Chicago Tribune has a behind the scenes video on their site talking with the costume designers for this year’s Joffrey Ballet production as well as Snowflake Waltz rehearsal. You can watch it here.

In early December, we will be releasing our second digital photobook with Nutcracker as its theme. To access these exclusive books, just leave your email address in the sidebar and you will receive a link to the download.

 A resource for this and many of the Joffrey historical posts on this blog is Sasha Anawalt’s brilliant book “The Joffrey Ballet: Robert Joffrey and the Making of an American Dance Company” which will be released as an ebook on January 27. For more information and one digitally pre released chapter, visit Amazon.




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