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.
The four performances that comprise “New Works” are also presented in a new venue for the Joffrey Ballet, The Cadillac Palace Theatre. Fitting, for the spring program which highlights four contemporary choreographers and leaves theater goers energized and refreshed. Joffrey’s usual home, the Auditorium Theatre, was being used for the NFL Draft, causing the temporary venue change.
Justin Peck, hailing from the New York City Ballet, holds up to his reputation with “In Creases” as the opening performance. The stage, outfitted with just two pianos, creates the perfect blank pallet to showcase the dancers. Outfitted in light grey, this piece takes all distraction away from the viewer, leaving you to appreciate the dancers ability, athleticism, and passion. The live pianos only amplify the risk of performing such a vulnerable piece. With nothing on stage to distract the viewer, any small mistake would be easily noticed, though the Joffrey ensemble danced this perfectly.
“Liturgy” is a brilliant pas de deux from Christopher Wheeldon, with the dancers exuding chemistry and pure passion. It is one of those pieces where you can feel the dancers’ love for what they do. Jeraldine Mendoza and Fabrice Calmels, while physically almost complete opposite, Calmels being an easy head and shoulders taller than Mendoza, the two are perfectly in sync and graceful throughout the entire performance. At parts, it is almost as though the two are connected by strings they are so perfectly timed with one another. The excitement and power coming from the stage is infectious and makes the viewers heart race.
The story of an anguished poet in “Evenfall” is a romantic progression of a relationship, from the first days through to the later years. The stage is outfitted with four mirrors through which the poet views the couple. The poet seems to be contemplating the relationship, and struggling to do so, as though he is reflecting on what once was and possibly what could be. Once again, Fabrice Calmels is commanding as one half of the older couple, amazing the viewers with his ability to be so fluid and soft. The piece is emotionally charged and gives the dancers a chance to showcase not only their technical ability, but their acting chops as well.
The final performance, “Incantations” by Val Caniparoli, was originally created for the Joffrey in 2012 and is nothing short of thrilling. The high paced and demanding choreography cannot be ignored. The dancers outfitted in tan costumes with flashes of red are mesmerizing as they own the stage. The focus of the performance is on constant and different pirouettes and turns leaving the viewer in awe. Joanna Wozniak and Dylan Gutierrez make a dynamic pair that is thrilling and powerful in every turn.
Joffrey’s “New Works” is just as hopeful and fresh as one would expect. The Cadillac Palace Theater provides a beautiful historic backdrop to the contemporary choreography of these four performances. The Joffrey Ballet once again put together an amazing performance and a great way to kick off the spring season.
For tickets and/or more show information, visit http://www.joffrey.org/newworks.