Chicago Dance Review: Christopher Wheeldon’s THE NUTCRACKER (The Joffrey Ballet)

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by Lawrence Bommer on December 2, 2018

in Dance,Theater-Chicago


No matter how many times you see it, you will ALWAYS be amazed by the gorgeous Nutcracker that Christopher Wheeldon imagined in 2015 for the Joffrey Ballet and the Auditorium Theatre. It’s simply impossible to remember how beautiful it is, so each witnessing is transcendently close to the first one.

As the famous architect — here called “The Great Impresario” — behind Chicago’s 1892-3 Columbian Exposition, said, “Make no small plans.” Honoring Daniel Burnham’s genius and setting the story in that South Side splendor, Wheeldon has made no small Tchaikovsky either. Puppetry, special effects, delightfully delusional video, and dazzling painting and projections all splendidly combine with a sterling company, Julian Crouch’s time-capsule sets and Victorian costumes, and Natasha Katz’s sun-shaming lighting. They raise Marie’s journey to the World’s Fair and beyond to the highest stakes of the finest music.

Unlike Robert Joffrey’s previous version, which emphasized the wealth of Clara’s Currier & Ives-like parlor, Wheeldon (creator of the equally eye-popping Gershwin tribute An American in Paris) delivers his own astonishing synchronicity: He roots Tchaikovsky’s 1892 ballet in a building, the Auditorium Theatre, that was standing at the same time as the work’s Mariinsky Theatre debut, as well as the “Great White City” itself. It’s the perfect confluence of music, cultural history and architecture, a time trip in its own right.

This fourth time around, however, some stuff — good and less so — stands out enough to deserve a reverent reappraisal.

For some folks the proletarian setting of the first act, which depicts at Christmastide the immigrant workers who were erecting the Fair’s terra-cotta marvels five months before the May opening, will be a downer. If this is the R.M.S. Titanic, we’re in steerage.

Including ragamuffin brats and shivering shop girls, Wheeldon’s drably clothed survivors — including Marie’s mother (Jeraldine Mendoza), the sculptress of the Fair’s presiding statue — are not exactly Chicago’s first citizens: When they don masks spoofing the swells and mock their manners, well, it’s not Chamber of Commerce material. There’s real poverty here, which makes the presence of a roguish Rat Catcher (Rory Hohenstein) and the actual rats themselves who the Nutcracker Prince (Alberto Velazquez) and intrepid Marie (Anais Bueno) will have to vanquish, very unsurprising.

But, yes, it’s wise and good of Wheeldon to show us “how the other half lives.”

As always, the projections — a gigantic Christmas tree, frost patterns that really are the frosting on the Joffrey cake, and the textures of the International Pavilions — are perfect pictures and stories in their own right (though why does the backdrop depict two palm trees on Jackson Park’s Wooded Island in Chicago?). Along with the dolls and dandies who visit the Fair, it makes perfect sense that the famous Midway Plaisance, which was a global village in its own right, should here burst with international delights, including Spanish, Arabian, masked Venetian, and Chinese dragon dancers. Most intriguing, in a kind of reverse Russian infiltration, Tchaikovsky’s Cossack dancers are here transformed into American icons, specifically a rope-twirling Buffalo Bill (Hohenstein) and three cowgirls from his Wild West Show (Olivia Duryea, Brooke Linford, and Olivia Tang-Mifsud).

This time around, the ballet seemed shorter than ever. Indeed, at two hours, including a 20-minute intermission, it’s one of the most condensed Nutcrackers anywhere. That comes at a cost, including the deletion of the soldier’s and ballerina’s novelty dances in the first act, some of the Snowflakes’ ensemble music in the second, and much of the pas de deux in the final act. This may be fine for children’s attention spans, but Tchaikovsky and adults deserve more.

A cautionary note: The Joffrey Ballet will soon move its offerings to the West Loop, specifically the Civic Opera House (which dates from 1929, 37 years later than the current juxtaposition of ballet, building and World’s Fair). We can only hope that The Nutcracker remains at Louis Sullivan’s unrivaled Auditorium Theatre, whose magnificent filigreed arches are echoed by the set in a spectacular final effect. Never has a glorious production so well fit its marvelous environs. Hopefully, if it does move, it won’t lose a ton in the transfer.

photos by Cheryl Mann

Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker
The Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University,
50 E. Congress Parkway
ends on December 30, 2018
for tickets, call 312.386.8905 or visit Joffrey

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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