There's nothing more cloying than an evening of bad holiday theatre. Each December countless Chicago theaters put up their annual Christmas shows. Some are better than others. For a reliable standard, Joffrey Ballet's "Nutcracker" is a safe bet.
For 2016, Joffrey presents an entirely new version of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet. Conceived by English choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, this new production is sleek and tailor-made for Chicago. An interesting variation on ETA Hoffman's original Russian fairy tale. In this version, Marie is from a working class family and it's set during the construction of the Chicago World's Fair. The dance sequences in the second act are Clara's dreams of what the Columbian Exposition will hold. Wheeldon's aesthetic borrows from holiday favorites like "A Christmas Carol" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" Sets by Julian Crouch combine the classic imagery of the original and newer conventions like projections. Accompanied by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, this "Nutcracker" is a little more grown up than the pastel versions you might remember.
The talent will be of no surprise to Joffrey regulars. Dancing the part of Marie is Amanda Assucena. Her performance portrays the lead character with a more teenage curiosity about romance. Miguel Angel Blanco dances a variation of Uncle Drosselmeyer, otherwise known as the Impresario of the Fair. It's playful and a little creepy. In the dream sequence, Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels turn up the heat as the Arabian Dancers. Wheeldon's choreography creates quite a spectacle and the large cast sequences are magical.
For those bored with run-of-the-mill "Nutcrackers" (a dime-a-dozen this time of year), this brand new production at The Joffrey will leave an impression. It's refreshing to see a local cultural institution take what they know works and turning it on its head. If only more of Chicago's tried and true holiday shows would take the same path, maybe we wouldn't dread them so much.
Through December 30th at Joffrey Ballet. 50 East Congress Parkway.
There is no better way to get in the holiday spirit than with the classic Christmas ballet, the Nutcracker. Twenty-eight years after Robert Joffrey’s original production, this is the final year that the Joffrey Ballet will perform this Nutcracker (2016 brings us the world premier of Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker!). Even decades since artistic director Ashley Wheater performed in the opening night of the production, this performance retains the timeless magic of this joyous holiday tradition.
For those unfamiliar, the show takes place on Christmas Eve in the 1850s, opening with a party at the house of the mayor, his wife and his two children, Clara and Fritz. In the midst of the lively party Drosselmeyer, the somewhat eccentric godfather to Clara and Fritz, sprinkles in some excitement to the festivities with enchanted life-size dolls that dance and entertain the guests. However, it is his gift of a nutcracker for Clara, which truly ignites the magic.
After the guests have left and the family has gone to bed, Clara sneaks downstairs to gaze upon her beloved Nutcracker. She soon finds herself in the middle of a battle between the Mouse King and his army of mice and the Nutcracker, who comes to life to fight with his band of toy soldiers. With the toss of a shoe, Clara knocks down the Mouse King saving the Nutcrackers life and as means of a thank you, he takes her through the Land of Snow to the Kingdom of Sweets where the many toys from under Clara’s tree come to life in enjoyable and fantastic dances.
Joffrey’s Nutcracker downplays the traditional romance between Clara and the Nutcracker prince, fortifying the role of Drosselmeyer as the catalyst and guide of Clara’s journey to the Kingdom of Sweets. Performed by Michael Smith, Drosselmeyer is a technically strong role but at times, it felt overpowering for my taste, making the role of Clara more infantile and taking away from the romance between Clara and the Nutcracker Prince.
Another split from tradition was the introduction of male dancers into the Land of Snow and Waltz of the Flowers scenes, however these deviations I found truly fantastic. The combination of beautiful partnering, endless falling snow and the graceful choreography expertly performed by the snowflakes (ladies) and snow winds (men) transports the audience on their mystical journey with Clara through the land of snow. In the Waltz of the Flowers in the second act, again the partnering added an interesting dimension, as did the constant tossing of fluttering flower petals beautifully worked into the choreography.
Overall, the dancers exhibited a wonderful balance of grace and precision creating flowing lines that perfectly complimented the Tchaikovsky score. The company members were fantastic, performing in perfect unison with a look of joy on their face making everything look effortless as a good ballet should. There were many young performers in the show as well who steal the scene with their cuteness! In the Kingdom of Sweets, each piece was accompanied by a tiny tot dressed in character sitting with Clara to watch the dance unfold. As someone who performed in the Nutcracker a number of times as a kid, I enjoyed this element of the show, as I am sure every aspiring ballerina in the audience did as well.
My favorite pieces by far were the Coffee from Arabia pas de deux, where Dara Holmes captivated us with her flexibility and elegant lines and the Grand Pas De Deux by the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince. Instantly entranced by the sparkle of the Sugar Plum Fairy costume, I was continually captivated as Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velasquez brilliantly performed the most iconic piece from the show.
The Nutcracker runs at the Auditorium Theater through December 27th. Buy your tickets now! Take your children, take your parents, take your date or take them all for a magical performance that will truly put you in the holiday spirit.