Joffrey ‘Nutcracker’ Has Right Balance To Freshen Classic

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The Joffrey Ballet’s new ‘Nutcracker’ sets the story in Chicago, around the time of the Columbian Exposition.
(Joffrey Ballet photos by Cheryl Mann)
By Kyle MacMillan

CHICAGO — Like A Christmas Carol and Messiah, The Nutcracker long ago became a yuletide staple in communities across the United States, with ballet companies relying on it for a sizeable portion of their annual ticket income. Productions come in an extraordinary array of subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle variations, as each troupe attempts to offer its distinctive interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s beloved Christmas fantasy.

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Christopher Wheeldon, choreographer-director. (Angela Sterling)

The anticipation was palpable Dec. 10 when a sold-out audience packed Chicago’s 3,901-seat Auditorium Theatre for the world premiere of the Joffrey Ballet Chicago’s large-scale new production of The Nutcracker. And the company delivered in a big way, with an exciting Chicago-centric take that manages to effectively re-imagine the story and to feel contemporary and traditional at the same time. All the parts – choreography, scenery, and costumes – worked together in a seamless, complementary fashion. Put simply, it was a big win for the company and another feather in the cap of acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon.

Because of the almost sacred position The Nutcracker holds in many families’ annual Christmas celebrations, companies are understandably reluctant to replace a longstanding production. But sets and costumes inevitably wear out, and the time simply comes for something new. That time arrived some years ago for the Joffrey Ballet, when it made the no-doubt tough decision to retire its 28-year-old version by co-founder Robert Joffrey.

To create the company’s new Nutcracker, artistic director Ashley Wheater turned to Wheeldon, one of the world’s most admired and in-demand choreographers, who rose to prominence after taking over as the New York City Ballet’s resident choreographer in 2001. He proved his mettle in the challenging realm of full-length story ballets, with successful productions at the Royal Ballet of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 2011 (co-commissioned by the National Ballet of Canada) and The Winter’s Tale in 2014. In 2015 he won Broadway’s Tony Award for his choreography of the musical An American in Paris.

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Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels, in the Arabian pas-de-deux, at the Exposition site.

The Joffrey Ballet made clear that it was ready for a new approach to The Nutcracker. But the question was just how far to verge from “tradition,” which generally means a Victorian setting and a storyline that more or less follows the original 1892 version by Lev Ivanov and Marius Petipa. Go too far and risk alienating audiences. Don’t go far enough, and the production just comes off as stale and derivative.

Some dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists will be put off by their approach, but Wheeldon and his collaborators have avoided controversy for the most part and arguably found just the right balance. They smartly kept the setting within the Victorian era, but they cleverly moved it to Chicago in the winter of 1892, five months before the opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition, a landmark international event whose impact can still be felt in the city.

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Clara is part of an immigrant family at work on Columbian Exposition preparations.

Instead of living in an opulent Victorian mansion, Marie (known as Clara in some versions) and Franz are part of an immigrant family who reside in a small shack on the construction grounds of the exposition. Their widowed mother is a sculptor, who is shaping the golden Statue of the Republic, a central symbol of the fair. The ballet’s opening party takes place in their spartan quarters, with an on-stage trio of clarinet, cello, and violin providing some of the music for the evening’s dances.

Instead of the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer, who typically sets the action in motion in The Nutcracker, this version has the Great Impresario of the Fair, who brings Christmas bonuses to the workers and gifts for their children. And, of course, he presents Marie with a nutcracker doll. From there, the ballet largely follows the familiar story, with Marie going to sleep at midnight and experiencing a fantastic dream complete with her nutcracker transformed into a handsome prince.

There are all the expected ingredients: a Christmas tree that grows to giant size, an epic battle between the rats (not the usual mice – more on that shortly) and toy soldiers and, of course, a trip to exotic locales via a magical gondola. It begins in a snowy realm, which in this case is somewhere in the dreamy outskirts of Chicago, and then continues not in the usual Kingdom of Sweets but in the World’s Fair Pavilions, which are ideally suited to the international flavor of the divertissements in the ballet’s second act.

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Swirling dragons cavort throughout the Chinese dance, a crowd favorite.

Some of these diversions, such as the Chinese dance, with its main dancer (Fernando Duarte) and two swirling, opulent dragons, each held aloft on sticks by five black-clad dancers, are almost identical to any conventional Nutcracker. Much the same is true of the Arabian dance, which featured a sensual pas de deux with Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels. It understandably drew some of the biggest cheers of the night.

But a section featuring Buffalo Bill (who brought his Wild West Show to the World’s Fair) and three saloon girls is a hoot of a departure from the usual. Dylan Gutierrez manages to capture the cowboy machismo of Buffalo Bill, complete with some neat lasso tricks, and pull off elegant entrechats at the same time. And instead of Mother Ginger and her giant dress, there is Mother Nutcracker (circus artist Matt Roben), an oversized gal straddling a small house that moves across the stage. Streaming out from inside are six impossibly cute nuts, which get a laugh each time they open to reveal the mugging children inside, and six toy soldiers.

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Victoria Jaiani is Queen of the Fair, updating the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Instead of the Sugar Plum Fairy (this loss will inevitably be difficult for some), there is the Queen of the Fair, a similar character who is derived from the Statue of the Republic and wears a golden tutu. In one of the most interesting and daring twists in this Nutcracker version, Marie’s mother dances this role. Later, when Marie wakes up from her dream, and the Impresario returns on Christmas Day, she realizes she is about to have a new stepfather. Victoria Jaiani, who appears in the two roles, is one of the ballet’s standouts. A wonderfully willowy, supple dancer with airy ports de bras, she brought a lissome fluidity to the Queen’s solo and her pas de deux with the Impresario, Miguel Angel Blanco, who proved a worthy partner.

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Chicago touch: Puppet rats crash the party from every perch.

A clever touch throughout much of the production is the recurrence of puppet rats, who first appear scurrying across a fence in the opening scene, which is set just outside the construction site. A character with no equivalent in conventional versions of the Nutcracker is the sinister Rat Catcher, who even makes an appearance at the party, when a rat sneaks into the proceedings. He later reappears as the evil Rat King. After Marie falls asleep, her first vision is realistic-looking rats pouring into her house, an unusually scary scene for a family-friendly Nutcracker, but one that harks back to the darker spirit of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s original tale.

The dazzling scenery melds sets by Julian Crouch (who also designed the eye-grabbing costumes) and projections by Benjamin Pearcy, a mix of traditional stagecraft and 21st-century technology that seems apt for a 19th-century ballet being remounted in 2016. A particularly memorable moment comes in Act 1 when the forest greenery transforms before the audience’s eyes into the blue-and-white hues of the ice and snow scene. Also highly effective are the projections of historical postcards from the World’s Fair, some slightly altered to fit the context of the ballet, which float in and out of view at the beginning of each act and help situate audiences in the production’s time and place. One off-key element of the scenery is Marie’s shack, which would have been tiny in reality but here takes up the whole stage. Obviously, such size is a theatrical necessity to accommodate the party scene, but there’s surely some way to give it a more contained feel.

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For the Waltz of the Flowers, Wheeldon’s choreography honors tradition.

Wheeldon has long striven to reinvigorate the classical ballet idiom, and many of his previous works have a contemporary flair and complexity about them. But in what might be something of a surprise (yet one that makes sense considering the history of this ballet), the choreographer has not strayed far from tradition in this piece. The appealing movement is straightforward, unfussy, and well suited to the needs of each section.

The choreographer has added some fresh touches, like a catchy move in the pas de deux between the Impresario and the Queen of the Fair, when they do a series of standing rolls across the front of each other with their arms outstretched. Or the addition of four Ice Cavaliers to the snow and ice scene, which is usually reserved exclusively for women. The inclusion of the men, along with their female partners and the accompanying dozen Snowflakes, gave Wheeldon rich options for the lively ensemble dancing in this scene, which he capitalized on with an array of creative groupings.

The heart and soul of The Nutcracker is Tchaikovsky’s amazing score, which despite being played ad nauseum in department stores and television commercials, manages to never lose its magic and wonderment. Unfortunately, the pit orchestra for this production had to be amplified so that it could be adequately heard by everyone in the vast Auditorium Theatre, and the resulting sound seemed poorly mixed and not very naturalistic. As a result, it was difficult to get a good sense of the orchestra, but, overall, conductor Scott Speck and the musicians offered a solid performance.

Even though The Nutcracker premiered 124 years ago in Russia, the Joffrey Ballet Chicago’s new production emphatically reaffirms its continuing resiliency and appeal – the definition of a true classic.

The Nutcracker continues through December 30. For information and tickets, click here.

Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.